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.

Jason Reed/Reuters
Children from public schools in the town of Chatfield seen with President Barack Obama, Minnesota, August 15, 2011. President Obama wants the Race to the Top program to target preschools.

The Department of Education on Tuesday announced the guidelines governing the $500 million in Race to the Top grants that it sees as a tool to reshape preschool education in America.

Last year, the Race to the Top competition awarded some $4 billion for use in K-12 education, and cash-strapped states nationwide undertook new education reforms to try to qualify for the program. The Obama administration has for months signaled its desire to have a similar effect on pre-K education.

Now, with the new guidelines for the competition, called the Early Learning Challenge, it is clear that the administration wants states to develop a public rating and improvement system for early-childhood programs.

Some worry such as step could eventually lead to high-stakes evaluations in preschools. Supporters, however, say that the competition's goal is to encourage states trying to build a coordinated preschool system that, in many cases, barely exists.

“We’re in the very nascent stages – just at the beginning of what it means to provide education to children at these ages,” says Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. But, she hopes, this challenge “lays out an important vision for quality improvement and coordinating what is right now a really messy non-system.”

States seeking to enter need to apply by mid-October, and a “handful” of winners will be announced in December. The guidelines of the competition recognize the variation in terms of what states have in place now, so much of the scoring will be based on states’ plans to improve early-childhood education, rather than their track record.

“The overarching goal of this challenge is to make sure that many, many more children enter kindergarten ready to succeed,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a conference call.

How the money can be used

None of the money will go toward expanding early-childhood learning slots or adding preschoolers to the rosters; rather, it will be used to help set up the systems, standards, and staffing necessary for high-quality programs.

“How can our children compete for the jobs of tomorrow when they’re already behind by the time they’ve started kindergarten?” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, on the same conference call. HHS, which distributes much of the federal money for childhood and early-learning programs, is a partner in the grant program. And the standards, she says, will emphasize behavioral, social, and physical health as well as academics.

When the draft criteria were first announced last month, some people worried that the administration was trying to move high-stakes testing – so controversial in K-12 classrooms – down to preschoolers.

The guidelines still don’t say exactly how assessments and data can be used when it comes to rewarding or punishing teachers. But Secretary Duncan and others in the administration emphasized that the assessments they’re talking about are not standardized tests, but are more observations necessary to evaluate programs and students and to improve instruction.

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

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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