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How does Obama want to reshape preschools? Education Department shows its hand.

The Education Department announced the guidelines for its latest Race to the Top competition, which will target preschools. The rules show what President Obama wants to change.

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“We will never ask 3-year-olds to take bubble tests,” he says. “That would be ludicrous."

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Jacqueline Jones, a senior adviser to Duncan on early learning, reiterated that “we’re talking about assessment in a broad context,… in which teachers gather information about children,” and said it is “tied to understanding how children our learning, how we can improve programs, and how teachers can develop the skills they need.”

States have already started

Some states already have fairly sophisticated quality rating and improvement systems, and others have come a long ways in coordinating their birth-to-5 programs with early-learning councils.

“Many of the states are farther along than people realize,” says Jim Squires, a senior research fellow at the National Institute for Early Education Research. “For the states that may receive the grants, this really provides a tipping point for them.”

Pennsylvania, for instance, already has a fairly coordinated early-learning system, says Ms. Guernsey, while Colorado and Florida do a good job at data collection. Other states were early adopters of rating systems, while Virginia implemented one more recently, learning a lot from other states.

“No one state jumps out as having everything,” Guernsey says.

As with the other Race to the Top grants, an outside panel of judges will score the applications. They will award points for:

  • Developing high-quality, accountable programs along with a common rating and improvement system. (75 points)
  • The state’s past track record and plan for implementing the grant. (65 points)
  • Having high-quality standards and assessments in place. (60 points)
  • Developing credentials and improving professional development for early-childhood educators. (40 points)
  • Whether the state has an early-learning data system or a kindergarten-readiness test. (40 points)

Duncan and others said they hope the application process – as with the earlier Race to the Top – helps states improve their early-learning systems whether or not they receive a grant, and that the judges will look both at how far states have come as well as their plans going forward.

Still, it’s a difficult time for many early-learning programs, with budgets being cut at both a federal and state level.

“So much of being ‘achievable’ depends on federal money,” notes Guernsey, citing one of the criteria administration officials have said they’ll be emphasizing. “This is going to be an enormous challenge for states struggling with major budget shortfalls.”

Guernsey is also disappointed that the challenge doesn’t do more to encourage coordination between early-learning systems and elementary schools. “It’s a missed opportunity,” she says.

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