Pre-K winners for Race to the Top contest: Will they spur broader reform?

Nine states will receive federal Race to the Top money to boost support for pre-K and other early-learning programs, the Obama administration announced Friday.

Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal/AP
In this photo taken Nov. 18, Cornerstone Preparatory School kindergarten students including, from left, Charles Earl, Khalia Sims, Serenity Allen, Laila Tatum, and Winter Davis, react to a question from teacher Diana Bey, not pictured, during a story reading and comprehension lesson. Nine states will receive federal Race to the Top money to boost support for pre-K and other early-learning programs, the Obama administration announced Friday.

Nine states received an early holiday gift on Friday: a share of $500 million from the federal government to boost support for early-childhood education.

Education officials hope the Race to the Top–Early Learning Challenge will spark widespread reform of programs that serve the youngest children – parallel to changes that have been seen in K-12 in response to the initial $4 billion Race to the Top competition.

California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Washington will receive four-year grants for their comprehensive plans to increase early-education quality and close gaps, particularly for low-income children, in school readiness.

The ripple effect could be much larger, since Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and the 26 other states that competed now have a vision for better supporting pre-K teachers and bringing together more systems of health care, social services, child care, and education.

At a time when many states have cut early-childhood education programs because of severe budget constraints, the Obama administration is trying to send a signal that investments today in this area could yield big returns for the economic and social well-being of the country tomorrow.

“Investing in early learning is one of the smartest things we can do,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan at a White House event Friday morning where the winning states were announced. “If we’re going to be serious about actually closing achievement gaps ... nothing is more important than getting our babies off to a good start.”

To provide that good start, the competition asked states to collaborate across government agencies and the public and private sectors to help parents so they can support their children’s development, promote high standards for child care and preschool, and pay greater attention to children’s well-being.

Often these activities take place in separate silos, but the “holistic approach is one thing that ties together the nine [winning] states,” said Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, the department that oversees the federal Head Start program and collaborated with the Education Department on the Early Learning Challenge.

Research has shown links between support for child development and future education outcomes and worker productivity.

“Investments in the early life cycle of disadvantaged children, especially, have much higher economic and social returns than many later intervention programs ... [such as] public job training, convict rehabilitation programs ... [and] adult literacy programs,” said James Heckman, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, at the White House event.

The Early Learning Challenge will accelerate “a focus on quality rating improvement systems” for early-childhood programs, says Davida McDonald, director of state policy for the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington. Such evaluations of early-childhood programs go beyond requiring certain health standards for licensing, to regularly monitoring if a program is meeting higher standards for children’s development and learning.

Another emphasis of the grants is helping teachers assess what children are learning and how well they are being prepared to start kindergarten. Some states have implemented portfolio systems for tracking children’s progress.

Three- and 4-year-olds from different language backgrounds and low-income families especially need help “to learn the specific language of school – things like standard English, reading readiness, number concepts,” said Barbara Bowman, a professor of early-childhood education at the Erikson Institute in Chicago, during the White House event.

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