What States Would Do if They Won the Early Learning Challenge

Sometime in the next few weeks, the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services will announce the winners of the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge competition.  A total of 35 states, DC and the Puerto Rico submitted applications vying for a slice of the $500 million pie, and insiders have predicted that a much smaller number – probably fewer than a dozen – will win.


The states’ applications, made available online last month, show what states have pledged to do if they come out on top.  For example, 35 of the 37 applicants explained their current or future plans for kindergarten entry assessments. Twenty six said they would include all early learning and development programs in their state’s Tiered Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS). The fewest number of applicants, 19, chose to focus on identifying and addressing health, behavioral and developmental needs.


As a refresher, the RTT-ELC requires states to promote kindergarten readiness, coordinate early learning programs and increase access to high-quality programs among high-need children. The challenge has two required “Core Areas,” which state must address.


  • Successful state systems: States must explain their commitment to creating and implementing a successful statewide early learning system that coordinates policy and practice across all relevant agencies.
  • High-quality, accountable programs: States must develop a common set of standards to align the goals of a full array of early learning programs across funding streams such as Head Start, Title I and IDEA.


In addition, the ELC includes three “Focused Investment Areas.” Under this section, states were allowed to choose their priorities.


  • Promoting early learning and development outcomes for children (States were required to select at least two to discuss):


o   Developing and using statewide, high-quality Early Learning and Development Standards;

o   Supporting effective uses of Comprehensive Assessment Systems;

o   Identifying and addressing  health, behavioral, and developmental needs; or

o   Engaging and supporting families.

  • A great early childhood education workforce (States were required to select at least one):


o   Developing Workforce Knowledge and Competency Framework and a progression of credentials; or

o   Supporting Early Childhood Educators.

  • Measuring outcomes and progress (States were required to select at least one):


o   Understanding the status of children at kindergarten entry; or

o   Building or enhancing an early learning data system.


The applications show that, overwhelmingly, states elected to focus on early learning standards and kindergarten entry assessments. This isn’t surprising, given that if their plans are deemed “high-quality” by peer reviewers, these states could earn 10 “extra credit” points.  Of the 37 applicants, only Maine and Missouri did not provide plans for kindergarten entry assessments. They both, however, completed a required chart explaining what kind of assessment they currently do, which could potentially grant them the extra points.


Nearly 90 percent of applicants chose to focus on more priorities than required. Six applicants (Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Vermont and Puerto Rico) developed plans for all focused investment areas. Will including all the priorities give them an edge, or will their efforts appear to be spread too thin? Only Arkansas, California, Washington and West Virginia stuck with the minimum requirement.


For the 26 states that chose to include all early learning and development programs in their QRIS, they could earn 10 extra points.


Finally, there were two invitational priorities. Applicants do not receive any credit for describing what they are doing in these areas, but they are allowed to use grant funding to continue their work. One of these priorities is Sustaining Program Effects in the Early Grades of Elementary School. The Departments of Education and HHS were interested in how states are aligning or plan to align K-3 standards with early learning standards, ease transitions from early learning programs to kindergarten, promote health and family engagement in the early grades, improve reading and math outcomes for third graders and leverage existing federal, state and local resources. Eighteen states discussed their work in this area. (Keep an eye out for our post exploring these states’ PreK-3rd efforts and proposed plans.)


Which states will win? We will find out before the end of this month. Back in August, we made some predictions on the top contenders based on historical data. We’ll soon know if those predictions hit the mark or whether states’ plans for improvements gave them enough of an edge to overcome their ranking.


Cross posted on the Early Education Initiative’s Early Ed Watch at the New America Foundation.

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