Early Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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Each January, Early Ed Watch predicts where we will see the most action, innovation and consternation in the year ahead. Here are the hot spots we see for 2013. Notable is the absence of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary School Act, otherwise known as No Child Left Behind. Prognosticators don’t give the bill much chance of making progress this year, given stalemates between the two houses of Congress.

The Child Care Development Block Grant, on the other hand, could see some action on Capitol Hill.  Debates on how to evaluate teachers will likely continue to dominate, as they did in 2011 and 2012. And at least one topic has popped up consistently since 2010 when we started this exercise: Head Start reform via the new "re-competition” process.

Have we missed anything? Let us know by posting a comment below or dropping us a line. We’d love to get your input.

#1 Big Budget Questions

In recent years, Congress has struggled to pass federal spending bills on time. This year, there’s an added twist: Only weeks before lawmakers will have to contend with the expiration of a six-month stopgap funding bill on March 27, they will also have to address mandatory across-the-board spending cuts. These “sequesters,” which will affect public schools, child care, Head Start, and the Early Learning Challenge, were originally scheduled to take effect on January 2, 2013, but were delayed in a last-minute agreement until March 1. And in addition to sequestration and the expiring 2013 funding bill, the U.S. hit the debt ceiling on New Year’s Eve. Members of Congress will be forced to take up all three issues in the beginning of 2013 – and that will all be before we get to the start of fiscal year 2014 in only 10 months, on October 1. Meanwhile, state funding for early childhood and PreK-3rd education could vary tremendously, with states such as Illinois facing drastic budget problems and others finally rebounding from the recession.

#2 Defining Effective Teachers

Efforts to improve the quality of teaching continue to drive policies for fixing public education, both in pre-K settings such as Head Start and in PreK-12 schools. Districts across the country will be implementing new approaches that link teachers’ evaluations to their students’ test scores and other indicators of how much children have learned. (We already saw a flare-up around this issue in Chicago last year.) In the PreK-3rd grades, the result could become a minefield, since standardized test scores are not readily available in most of those grades and many early childhood experts advise against using high-stakes one-time tests with young children. Another hot spot centers on improving the rigor of the observation of teachers in the classroom, something we've argued for in Watching Teachers Work. And teaching preparation will hit the headlines too as education schools and other workforce and teacher-prep programs are scrutinized for evidence that their graduates make a difference.

#3 Reforming Head Start

This spring, pre-K providers around the country will anxiously await an announcement of the winners of Head Start grants under a new, controversial funding regime officially known as Designation Renewal and informally called “re-competition.” The announcements were originally expected last December, but as first reported by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services pushed the date off. More than 500 organizations applied and expert panels of 250 reviewers will evaluate their applications, according to Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, director of the Office of Head Start.  More details on how the new funding process works can be found in our recent issue brief, Reforming Head Start: What ‘Re-competition’ Means for the Federal Government’s Pre-K Program, and basic information on how Head Start works in our Federal Education Budget Project. Also to watch: any fall-out from the controversial Head Start Impact Study, which released its third-grade results a few weeks ago.

#4 More Races to the Top?

For the past three years in the PreK-12 world, Race to the Top -- a competition among states, and most recently districts, for generous federal grants -- has reigned as the most talked-about federal program to improve public education. The Early Learning Challenge, part of Race to the Top, has dominated discussions on how to improve publicly-funded programs for children from birth to age 5. Will tightening budgets and the threat of sequester spell the end of Race to the Top? If there is another round of the competition, will it include early learning – and might it enable better coordination between those programs and PreK-12 districts? Other big questions are the fate of the Striving Readers competition, a birth-to-12th grade program aimed at states; the Investing in Innovation Fund, which supplies competitive grants to non-profits and schools; and the Promise Neighborhoods program, which funds local-led initiatives to improve educational outcomes for children in high-poverty neighborhoods by providing comprehensive health, safety, and other support.

#5 A Dearth of Good Data

Last September, the Early Education Initiative integrated district-level pre-K data into the Federal Education Budget Project database for the first time. In doing so, it became clear just how far states still have to go in collecting data and using the information to design better, more equitable policies. Many elementary school principals and superintendents don’t even know how many children coming to their schools were enrolled in pre-K and superintendents have no way to accurately compare pre-K and kindergarten funding to their neighboring districts. The Early Childhood Data Collaborative has also been beating the drum for better data. In a recent webinar it focused on the use of program, teacher and child data in the Early Learning Challenge program. But even the basic data on pre-K programs available now might not be next year. As Early Education Initiative director Lisa Guernsey wrote in October, the National Institute for Early Education Research may not have the necessary funding to publish their annual State of Preschool Yearbook. We’ve recommended establishing a national task force to study the issue of data in early childhood education, and we’ll be watching the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, along with state leadership, to see whether they address these critical issues in the coming year.

#6  A New Child Care Bill?

Before last year’s presidential election and the fiscal cliff got in the way, members of the Senate were making progress in drafting a bill that would reauthorize the Child Care Development Block Grant, the legislation that allows Congress to give money to states to put toward subsidizing child care for low-income families. (See David Gray’s update from the child care event we co-hosted with his Workforce and Family Program in September.) Congress may take up that task again this year, if it can get past the now-postponed “fiscal cliff” deadline looming in March. Reports have shown that the United States lags woefully behind other countries on providing access to good child care. But debates are coming over whether it is fair to tighten standards, or even just require background checks, with little promise of new funding.

#7 Monitoring States’ NCLB Waivers

In the last year, 34 states and Washington, D.C. were awarded waivers by the U.S. Department of Education allowing them to abandon certain provisions of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) -- particularly the requirement for all students to reach proficiency in reading and math by the end of the 2013-2014 school year. Ten additional states have waiver applications pending or plan to apply. Yet relief from NCLB comes at a price. States are required to overhaul school accountability systems, implement new standards and assessments and tie educator evaluations to student achievement. Waivers are often confusing for parents and even education experts to understand. Will state education officials improve their efforts to explain the new policies? More important, will they be receptive and responsive to public feedback? For example, while we were disappointed with states’ lack of attention to early learning in the waivers, advocates could lobby officials to better integrate the early grades into states’ plans.

#8 The Role of Early Learning in School Turnarounds

The federal government’s “turnaround” initiative -- known as the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program -- received a makeover and a one-time, $3 billion influx in funding from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Now experts are wondering if the SIG investment has paid off. In November, the U.S. Department of Education released the first snapshot of school performance from hundreds of schools receiving SIG funds, yet the data left us with more questions than answers. Here at Early Ed Watch, we are particularly interested in whether PreK-3rd grade initiatives or other early learning programs are being used as an effective school turnaround strategy. For instance, the Department noted that a larger proportion of elementary schools saw student achievement gains in the first year of the SIG program, compared to middle and high schools. Did access to early learning -- if it was even offered -- affect student outcomes? For a discussion of these questions and more, join us on January 14 at our event Turnaround 2.0:  Tapping the Potential of the PreK-3rd Grades to Improve Schools.

#9 A Continued Push for Literacy

Several forces combined in 2012 to keep literacy on the radar screen in state houses around the country. The nationwide Campaign for Grade-Level Reading spotlighted the continued low achievement of disadvantaged student groups on national reading tests, and 124 cities signaled their commitment to closing those gaps. Governors and state legislatures raised the issue of early literacy as well, with some of the attention resulting in new laws. Several of those laws require children to be held back from advancing to fourth grade if they cannot pass reading tests. Several of those laws keep children from advancing to fourth grade if they cannot pass state reading tests. We’ve questioned the wisdom of those third-grade retention policies, especially because research has not yet untangled whether retention by itself makes a difference. And previous studies have shown that repeating a grade can have ill effects on students over time.  We’ll be watching whether states that have legislated the threat of retention will also make it possible for children to achieve by building strong early learning and kindergarten programs and by redoubling efforts to ensure that teachers in the early grades are effective at teaching reading.

#10  Library and Tech-Assisted Partnerships

At the end of 2012, the Institute for Museum and Library Services convened a group of experts on libraries and early childhood to lift up the often-forgotten role that libraries can play for families, schools and early childhood programs.  The Office of Head Start issued a memo on this issue last spring, and we outlined new possibilities in a technology brief for the Education Commission of the States last summer. Continued momentum could come from the Institute’s report, expected later this year. We’ll also be watching and participating in a series of forums and webinars that note the potential in sharing print and digital resources, early literacy personnel and tech-assisted outreach programs, such as those noted in our recent report with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center for the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, Pioneering Literacy in the Digital Wild West: Empowering Parents and Educators.

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