Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

Today, I’ll look at two more sets of feedback on the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge that take different approaches to the question of the role of the new federal program in aligning early learning with the primary grades.

The comment period for draft criteria closed last week. 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.

In her comments, Lisa Guernsey, director of the New America Foundation’s Early Education Initiative, calls for strengthening alignment with early elementary school.  In their comments,  Sharon Lynn Kagan and Kristie Kauerz contend focusing too much attention on alignment with the primary grades diverts needed funds from the core mission of strengthening the birth-to-age-5 system. Kagan is a professor of early childhood and family policy at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Kauerz is the program director for PreK-3rd education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Despite the divergent views expressed in their comments, all three are strong supporters of aligning early education with the primary grades.

To Lisa Guernsey, the draft criteria do not go far enough in promoting “meaningful connections between these [early learning] programs and elementary schools.”

“We see several areas that are weak or poorly defined,” Guernsey writes. “Aside from standards alignment with K-3 standards, the requirements give little attention to the importance of promoting better connections to elementary schools and helping states to build a more seamless system of learning from birth up through the third grade. We recognize that the competition is designed to fund birth-to-5 initiatives, but that doesn’t mean that it cannot also encourage states to pursue policies that would encourage more sharing, particularly in the appropriate use of kindergarten-entry assessment data.”

Guernsey recommends elevating sustaining outcomes in the primary grades to a competitive priority to give it weight in evaluating states’ applications. “Efforts to sustain learning gains… are a critical piece of ensuring that states make the most of their early learning investments and that children continue to receive high-quality instruction in elementary school,” she writes. “An ‘invitational’ priority is not enough to push states to create the kinds of collaborative environments that are necessary for shared professional development, shared data systems and shared development of standards and assessments.”

Kagan and Kauerz, on the other hand, argue that the Early Learning Challenge is too modest a fund to tackle more than improving the quality of early learning settings.

The “focus on birth to age 5 is controversial,” Kagan and Kauerz write. “How, some ask, when developmental science supports learning from birth through age 8 as a continuum, can the RTT-ELC focus only on birth to 5? Are we not leaving out full-day kindergarten and the early-elementary grades, crucial years of education that lay foundations for later success but are badly in need of improvement themselves? On the other end of the age debates, some cite the nation’s woeful and historic neglect of infants and toddlers and call for a birth-to-age-3 focus.

“Our stance is clear: No age group is more or less important in the early-childhood continuum, but the RTT-ELC can’t be expected to be all things to all children. While we celebrate this $500 million investment, this is a relatively small pot of money compared with past proposals. For this reason, we need the RTT-ELC to focus, as it does, on birth to age 5. To create robust, meaningful, and lasting connections with the K-12 system, and alignment and continuity that will benefit all children, we need to build and bolster stronger birth-to-5 systems. Without such systems of early care and education in place, alignment with K-12 is approached program by program and school by school, and relies heavily on individual initiative…. Let’s let the challenge, as it purports to do, strengthen the infrastructure and service links for birth to 5, links that will ultimately support greater alignment with K-3 and the development of enriched birth-to-age-8 commitments.”

The U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services are now considering these and other comments and are expected to release applications later this summer. Grants will be awarded by year’s end. Massachusetts, which is eligible for up to $50 million, is one of 36 states (and the District of Columbia) that have indicated they will apply for the Early Learning Challenge.