Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

Culling through some of the comments on the Obama administration’s draft criteria for the $500 million Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge, a few themes emerge, including assessments, funding, Pre-K-3rd alignment and professional development. Now that the comment period has ended, the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services are considering what, if any, changes they will make before releasing the application for the competition later this summer.  According to the draft criteria, states will be required to address early learning standards and kindergarten assessments as well as a tiered Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS). Including the mixed delivery system of public and private providers in QRIS is a competitive priority. Ensuring outcomes persist into the primary grades and encouraging public-private partnerships are proposed invitational priorities.

Meanwhile, taken together, a number of the comments offer a thoughtful assessment of the status of early education and care in the United States as well as various recommendations for moving early learning forward. In today’s post and my next one, I will include excerpts from some of the feedback.  Find more comments here, on the U.S. Department of Education website.

Included in the comments of the Child Care and Early Learning Coalition is a serious concern about funding of early education and care. The coalition is comprised of 18 organizations, including the Children’s Defense Fund, CLASP, Easter Seals, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the National Head Start Association, the National Women’s Law Center,  YMCA of the USA and Zero to Three.

“Early learning and development programs, unlike primary and secondary school, do not have a base of substantial state and local funding,” the coalition writes. “Early childhood investments are particularly vulnerable now due to funding cuts at both the federal and state levels. While the appropriation for the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) was increased by $100 million in the FY 2011 budget, this replaced only a fraction of the $1 billion per year provided under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for 2009 and 2010.

“As a direct result of this loss in federal funds and state funding cuts, many states are reducing access to child care assistance. … It is not possible to ensure that more low-income children attend higher-quality early learning and development programs solely or even largely by repurposing or reallocating existing funding. We recommend that the final criteria for the RTT-ELC include some mechanism for states to show that they have maintained participation in federal early childhood programs, maintained state investments in child care, prekindergarten, Head Start, Early Head Start, and full-day kindergarten, and will not cut children from these programs in response to state budgetary shortfalls.”

The coalition’s comments also included calls for “ensuring early learning programs can meet high standards,” “ensuring appropriate assessment and uses of assessment” and “creating a strong early childhood workforce.”

In his feedback, W. Steven Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, focuses on assessments, quality and access, workforce development and the Quality Rating and Improvement System.  Assessment, he writes, is a “useful tool in continuous program improvement” that should be used with caution. “Assessments alone should not be used to make high-stakes decisions about individual programs or children,” he writes. “Assessments aligned with standards can give useful information on what is and is not working in a program, and should be used to guide trainings, professional development and technical assistance. Yet many professionals do not sufficiently understand the strengths or limitations of various assessments and the appropriate purposes for which they may be used…. Beyond the particularls of assessment, it is important that early childhood professionals be educated about the difficulties in making cause inferences about programs from assessment data and the kinds of evaluation designs required for valid inferences.”

Grants will be awarded by December 31, 2011. Massachusetts, which is eligible for up to $50 million, is one of 36 states that have indicated they will apply for the challenge, as has the District of Columbia.