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Washington Races Forward In First Year of its Early Learning Challenge Grant

Published:  August 13, 2013
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This guest post was written by Paul Nyhan, a journalist and early education expert. He writes about early education at Thrive by Five Washington.

For the past several years, Congress has approved funding for several small grant programs that could offer lessons for policymakers across the country but that rarely attract attention from the mainstream press. These programs include the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge, the Social Innovation Fund, Investing in Innovationand Promise Neighborhoods.  While Congress is unlikely to make headway on larger plans, such as President Obama’s 2013 early learning proposal, the work underway in these smaller programs shed light on what states and local communities could aim for – and what mistakes to avoid -- in the future. 
In the next few months, guest blogger Paul Nyhan will provide a window onto four places around the country where these grant programs are triggering changes in early childhood systems. Nyhan kicks off his series by examining how the state of Washington is using its Early Learning Challenge grant. Washington was one of nine states in 2011 to receive the first-ever Early Learning Challenge grants designed to improve a state’s infrastructure for early childhood programs. 

Check out our sidebars on Washington's Early Learning Challenge grant and on the PreK-3rd efforts in seven Washington school districts.

When Washington won an Early Learning Challenge grant, what it really earned was an opportunity to put its vision for early learning on a fast track, one that quickly led to progress and some turbulence within a year.

Essentially, Washington is spending its four-year $60 million grant to speed up three projects that were already underway: construction of a ratings and improvement system for early learning centers (known nationally as QRIS); development of a child assessment and transition program (WaKIDS); and creation of better professional development for early educators.

With this approach the state got off to a quick start, hitting or exceeding most of its early targets. By the end of the grant’s first year, the state surpassed one goal by enrolling nearly 1,000 child care programs in its QRIS system, extending WaKIDS to 307 schools, and enrolling 17,570 educators in its online career and training system.   

But with speed and progress also comes disruption, and at times confusion. The grant demands an incredible amount of change and flexibility from educators, providers, and regulators in only four years. In that first year alone, nearly 600 kindergarten teachers adopted the new kindergarten entry assessment and transition process, and many of them felt rushed. Within three years, Washington’s application promised that program would cover all of the state’s more than 70,000 public kindergarten students.

It “put people out of their comfort zone and I think that is what the grant is designed to do,” said Juliet Morrison, who oversees implementation of the grant for the state’s Department of Early Learning. “There is lots of changing course and changing development…The pace of it alone is a huge challenge.”

Another huge challenge during the first year was that Washington built and implemented statewide programs at the same time. Within its QRIS program, for example, it constructed a data management system even as it gathered data. And it needed technical assistants in the field at the same time it wanted to train them.

This approach often “required everyone to work at top speed, often while not at full organizational capacity. Decisions have needed to be revisited as more is learned through implementation,” Washington said in its progress report to the federal government about the first year of the grant. “While these changes are essential to improving outcomes for children, they can cause a lot of disruption during the process.”

WaKIDS Shows Potential and Pitfalls of Racing to the Top

Perhaps nowhere is the disruption and potential of Washington’s Race to the Top grant clearer than in the kindergarten entry and transition program, WaKIDS.

WaKIDS is an ambitious three-part system that could become the linchpin in Washington’s emerging PreK-3rd strategy, which it calls P-3 (for prenatal through third grade). It calls for meetings between teachers and parents at the start of kindergarten, stronger relationships between early learning and kindergarten teachers, and assessment of incoming kindergarteners’ skills. Largely through observations, a teacher measures a student’s abilities in 19 categories, ranging from social-emotional to mathematics.

By the time Washington won its grant, the state had been developing WaKIDS, which is also known as the Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills, for five years. The Race to the Top plan accelerated development by promising it would cover all of the state’s kindergarten students in public schools by the 2014-15 school year and more than double coverage to 34 percent of students in the first year.

While this timeline was impressive, it did not give many kindergarten teachers a lot of time to prepare for a brand new approach to kindergarten transition.

“There is nothing that kindergarten teachers hate more than to be unprepared. They felt unprepared for it,” said Bette Hyde, director of Washington’s Department of Early Learning. “They liked the concept. It was just too fast.”

Veteran kindergarten teacher Marla Claffey is one who likes the concept of WaKIDS. When she meets parents before the school year starts at Mark Twain Elementary in Federal Way, Wa., she gets a clearer picture of her students’ strengths, weaknesses, and home life.

Last fall, for example, a mother walked into her WaKIDS meeting high on crystal meth with blood streaming down her face after falling in the school parking lot. As troubling as that meeting was, Claffey saw that her new student faced challenges at home, which guided her teaching during the year.

“Before WaKIDS it was kind of a blank slate. You didn’t know anything about that kid, anything about that parent,” said Claffey. “It gave me a lot of insight and that is something I wouldn’t have gotten before.”

WaKIDS student assessments, however, are not as easy.

The first weeks inside Claffey’s classroom are generally hectic. At any given moment a child is pleading for help tying his shoes, a group is wandering around when they should be lining up for recess, and students are arguing about who gets a Lego piece.

During this two months of controlled turmoil, Claffey must observe and often take notes on 19 objectives – more than 30 if subcategories are included – for each of her 22 students. Does a student notice and discriminate rhyme? Show an understanding of patterns? Demonstrate physical balancing skills, such as sidestepping across the edge of a sandbox and attempting to jump rope?

“Lawmakers don’t know what we are dealing with. We have 25 kids in our classroom and trying to get 30-some assessments for this WaKIDS assessment [is] crazy,” added Rania Carter, who uses the program in her kindergarten classroom at Beverly Elementary School in Lynwood, Wa. “It has great potential. We have to figure out how we can scale it back and how we can make it more manageable.”

One way to make it more manageable would be to combine state and district assessments into one system, Claffey said.

State policymakers appear to be listening. Six months after Washington won its Race to the Top grant the legislature approved a WaKIDS plan that did not include the grant’s goal of statewide participation by all 74,972 kindergarteners entering public school in 2014-15. Instead, it created a work group to focus on implementation. 

By the end of the grant’s first year Washington fell just short of its WaKIDS target, reaching 85 percent of its goal, or 22,710 out of 25,714 students. Now, grant leaders are reconsidering the rest of the Race to the Top plan’s ambitious WaKIDS timeline.

Thinking Differently About Quality

During the start-up phase of Washington’s Race to the Top, these WaKIDS challenges were the types that refined, and at least once changed, the work. When it came to building a statewide quality rating and improvement system, Early Achievers, the award spurred policymakers to rethink what quality even means in early learning.

“This is our opportunity to look at quality in a new way, in a deep way,” the Department of Early Learning’s Morrison said.

Policymakers began by reviewing how they were improving child care. They already had a plan to increase access to high-quality services proven to improve outcomes for kids. Now the grant gave them the money to implement, refine and more rapidly expand their plan around the state. Coaches, for example, now helped teachers introduce interactive reading by creating opportunities for them to ask children questions during story time, a technique proven to develop early literacy skills.

This review led to a change in Washington’s RTTT – Early Learning Challenge plan. As grant work began, leaders at the Department of Early Learning debated where the two biggest early educationprograms in the state – Head Start and state-funded preschool, the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) – fit within the ratings system. Other states simply added Head Start and state preschools to a QRIS system at the same established rating, perhaps three out of five possible stars. But Washington went in a different direction, one not proposed in its Race to the Top application. It launched a pilot project to develop a streamlined process for these programs to join Early Achievers, and test how centers would apply rules and define quality under the program. Ultimately, the pilot determined these programs should join at level three.

The Head Start-ECEAP pilot yielded plenty of other lessons as leaders expanded the rating system across the state. They learned, for example, how much high-quality ratings cost.

The grant money allowed the pilot’s director, University of Washington’s Gail Joseph, to hire salaried, not hourly, data collectors, and send them to a wide range of programs. These relatively well-paid workers and their broad net produced higher-quality data, which, in turn, should create better ratings.

These lessons will be useful in the grant’s second year, as work moves from enrolling and supporting child care providers to actually rating nearly 700.So far, this transition has been slower than expected.

Initial reluctance by providers is understandable. Coaching and technical assistance are relatively low-risk moves, but receiving a public grade, one that could affect business, carries more risk. The Department of Early Learning, however, is confident it will have enough volunteers.

Getting more providers to raise their hands to be rated is part of a fundamental shift across all of the grant’s work in the second year from development of programs to implementation. In addition, the grant will receive outside help. For example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will continue to provide support to selected school districts for WaKIDS training, planning and support. And more teachers will have three days at the start of the school year to meet parents, under a bill recently signed by Democratic Gov.  Jay Inslee.

In the second year, leaders remain ambitious and committed to targets they set in their winning Race to the Top application. By the end of 2013, they plan to double the number of child care providers in the ratings program to 2,227, add more kindergarten classrooms to the kindergarten entry and transition process, and move more early educators up the professional development ladder.

But, a less tangible and perhaps more important measurement of the entire grant’s success looms at the end of this year and every year going forward.

The Department of Early Learning’s Juliet Morrison said she wants to see that “families out of the gate know this is what I want for my child, this is what quality is. If we can create some champions in the state that start to see these connections, I think we are going to be in a really good place.”

“It is our shot to start shifting the way communities think about this.”



How Washington’s ELC Grant Extends up Through 3rd Grade

When the Obama Administration announced the Race to the Top Early - Learning Challenge competition in 2011, most of the attention was focused on programs for children before kindergarten. But Washington is using its grant to strengthen its emerging PreK-3rd networks, better known in the state as P-3 because they start with children and families before the pre-kindergarten grades while still extending up through third grade. In fact, elements of P-3 permeate the grant’s core strategies, including:

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In Seven Washington Districts, A PreK-3rd Focus Honed by RTT-D Grant

A year after Washington won its first Race to the Top grant, seven of its school districts banded together to win a second – this time to build a birth-to-college system in one of the state’s poorest regions.

The coalition of districts beat out more than 350 other applicants for the 2012 U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top-District grants with a sweeping plan of eight strategies spanning birth through college in South King County, where more than half of students live in poverty.

One of those strategies is to get all of these districts moving in the same direction by aligning programs for children from pre-kindergarten through the third grade, in integral part of a broader goal of a birth-to-college continuum. 

Before the coalition won the $40 million grant in Fall 2012, pockets of this work – which it calls P-3 – were scattered around the county but were not coordinated. The ambition is to align and expand these efforts under a single approach, in part, by taking three initial steps:

  • Develop leadership capacity by creating a P-3 leadership team and a lead contact in each school district.
  • Create a common language and framework among the districts by having all seven use models and tools developed by national P-3 expert Kristie Kauerz. These tools will be used to plan, implement and evaluate integration of the first five grades.
  • Build effective evaluation systems driven by data.

It is not all about systems building. The Race to the Top grant, which is part of the broader community-based Road Map Project, has a separate pool of funds for promising projects within districts. The Road Map aims to boost the percentage of third grade students reaching state reading standards by third grade to 87 percent by 2020 from 66 percent in the 2009-10 school year.

Less than a year into the Race to the Top grant, leaders are still working out specific goals, but they know they want a clear definition of school readiness for policymakers and parents.

“We will have a common definition and common understanding of what it means to be kindergarten ready. Without that how can each system do their best work?” said Julie Rolling, assistant superintendent for learning, teaching and family support, at Puget Sound Educational Service District.

As these efforts got underway, yet another goal emerged: figuring out how to best coordinate the efforts of the statewide Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grant and the Race to the Top-District grant. Surely, the thinking goes, the two projects will accomplish more together than alone.

Leaders of the two grants held their first joint meeting in June.

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