Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

The $500 million Early Learning Challenge (ELC) that will comprise a large part of the next round of the federal Race to the Top competition presents opportunities both to build high-quality systems of early learning and to align early education with the primary grades, as the New America Foundation’s Early Education Initiative makes clear.

Initiative director Lisa Guernsey and a group of research and school leaders are calling on the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which will jointly administer the challenge, to incorporate PreK-3rd into competition guidelines. And a recent post on New America’s Early Ed Watch blog lists 10 questions about early learning that the guidelines should answer.

Calling ELC “a tremendous opportunity for states to improve the quality and continuity of education for young children,” the group notes that “while the funds have been designated to focus on children before they reach kindergarten, we believe the ELC also provides a unique opportunity to establish early learning as the foundation for a fully aligned continuum of education from birth through post-secondary.”

The group offers a number of specific recommendations around government, funding and data; standards, assessments and program improvement; professional development; and transitions. ELC applications are expected to be released later this summer and grants will be made by the end of the calendar year. Here is a sample of the group’s recommendations:

Incorporating the group’s recommendations into ELC guidelines, “could  go a long way toward helping states to position their early learning systems to strategically align with the early grades,” Guernsey writes on Early Ed Watch. “Those better connections would not only give young children a strong start but also enable them to benefit from a seamless system of learning throughout their formative years, providing them with an excellent foundation for success in school and life.”

Other members of the group are Bridget Hamre, senior scientist at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education; Kristie Kauerz, program director of PreK-3rd Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; Chris Maxwell, director of the Erikson Institute’s New Schools Project; Sharon Ritchie, senior scientist and director of First School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Tonja Rucker, principal associate of the Institute for Youth and Families at the National League of Cities; and Thomas Schultz, program director of Next Generation Learners at the Council of Chief State School Officers.

In an earlier posting, Guernsey and her colleagues Laura Bornfreund and Maggie Severns posed over-arching questions about ELC. Here’s a sample: