10 Hot Spots in Early Ed for 2012

Blog Post
Jan. 11, 2012

Each January, Early Ed Watch predicts the hot spots for the coming year -- issues that will dominate discussions in early education policy and trigger halleluiahs or handwringing from advocates of better investments in early learning, birth through third grade.

Last year we forecasted a focus on the federal budget, the Elementary and Secondary Education ActHead Start re-competition, teacher evaluation, Striving Readers and other competitions and tax reform. (Looking back, we should have named the Early Learning Challenge ahead of Striving Readers. And tax reform never really became the discussion magnet we imagined, though it remains worth keeping an eye on.)

Here are our hot spots for 2012. Do you agree? What are we missing?

#1 The Presidential Race and Education

Thus far in the GOP primary, only Newt Gingrich has acknowledged the Obama administration’s record of progress on education reform through programs like Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation. In an attempt to woo his party’s conservative base, which is skeptical of federal efforts to regulate local schools, Mitt Romney has distanced himself from his record of support for No Child Left Behind and for standards-and-accountability education reform more broadly. Other candidates have signaled their desire to dismantle the U.S. Department of Education.

Polls show voters rank education relatively low on their list of issue priorities, but as primary season draws to a close and the general election begins in earnest, education is sure to come up in debates between President Obama and the eventual Republican nominee. At that point, will the GOP move to the center on school reform or will it continue to harshly criticize federal school improvement efforts? How will the House Republicans’ latest plan for revamping No Child Left Behind figure into the debates, if at all? Will teacher unions continue to be strong supporters of President Obama given the Administration's push for revamping the way teachers are evaluated?

#2 Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge

In late December the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services announced nine winners of the latest round of Race to the Top, which focuses on early learning. In 2012, the winning states will have to implement their ambitious agendas—and as states have experienced with other rounds of Race to the Top, this is no easy task.

The competition required states to apply only under four of the eight policy focus areas, but winners Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota and North Carolina applied under at least six categories. All the winners except Maryland applied under the QRIS competitive priority, which requires states to develop a plan to include all early education programs in the state’s quality rating and improvement system, tracking information on program quality measures such as child/staff ratios. Then there is California, which received about half of the money it applied for, but is implementing reform in the midst of a state budget crisis – in fact, a budget proposal now on the table would slash the state’s new transitional kindergarten program.  

How successfully will states implement their Race to the Top promises? How much will ongoing budget shortfalls hinder their work? What progress will be made? Will non-winning states attempt to use their Race to the Top plans to improve their own early education systems? New York, for example, abandoned plans to develop a kindergarten assessment after failing to win an Early Learning Challenge grant. And will there be another Early Learning Challenge competition? Congress funded Race to the Top for another year, and while these funds are allowed to be used for early education, they do not have to be. We’ll be watching this closely.

#3 State Budgets

The recession spurred fiscal crises in states across the country, and early childhood education has been among the victims as state legislatures made deep cuts to balance budgets. In 2011, the National Institute for Early Education Research found the first year-to-year decline in state funding for pre-K programs since 2002, when the organization began tracking funding in its annual State of Preschool report. A sluggish economic recovery from the recession, and the expiration of federal stimulus funds, presents more roadblocks to increasing funding for childhood development programs. Cuts to full-day kindergarten or stalled plans to expand it have also been in the news.

But there are some signs of hope. A few states have actually seen slight revenue upticks this year as tax revenue exceeded anticipated levels, and the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge encouraged most states to develop early learning systems and plans.  Early Ed Watch will be following state budget politics in 2012, too, and we’ll be looking for a few things. Will state funding totals for programs for children prior to kindergarten be protected this year when governors establish their spending priorities? Will districts find ways to protect full-day kindergarten? Might both kindergarten and pre-K programs start to rebound as state outlooks start to look a little brighter?

#4 Waivers from Sanctions under 'No Child Left Behind' Law

This month the Department of Education is expected to issue waivers to the 11 states that asked to be exempt from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) sanctions. Twenty-eight more states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have indicated that they will submit requests for waivers before February.

In exchange for this flexibility, states must commit to work toward a set of priorities that the Department of Education has established. The focus is on improving three areas: standards and assessments; teacher and principal evaluation systems; and accountability systems. Notably, states could also choose to focus on early learning, electing to do so, however, will not help a state win a NCLB waiver. At Early Ed Watch, we see this as a big missed opportunity but are still curious to see what happens in states that are granted waivers. Will this new set of priorities end up improving education in the waiver states? Will priorities outlined for waivers eventually make their way into the next Elementary and Secondary Education Act? And will early education get its due as an important part of PreK-12 federal education policy moving beyond No Child Left Behind, or will it once again fall by the wayside? 

#5 Competitive Grant Programs with a Focus on Early Ed

2011 was a big year for federal grant programs and early education. As we noted above, the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge doled out $500 million to nine states to improve coordination of early learning programs and promote school readiness for disadvantaged children; five new Investing in Innovation (i3) grantees with early learning as a focus were awarded $26 million in funds to help evaluate and scale up innovative approaches to education; and the $30 million Promise Neighborhoods program issued a total of 20 grants to help low-income communities either plan or build cradle-to-career educational pipelines.

These aren’t huge pools of money, but they are going to fund some early education strategies on a much larger scale, and will test the waters for new and different approaches to early education reform. Additionally, all three programs were renewed for FY2012, though it is unclear whether or not Race to the Top will have an early childhood focus in the next round. Will the grantees yield new, innovative models for early education? Or will their ambitious plans could fall short in the face of real-world challenges such as the need to locate matching grant funds and to follow through on the many promises for collaboration between schools, non-profit organizations and other agencies?

#6 Competitions for Head Start Dollars

Though it got little attention in the mainstream press, the world of Head Start was shaken last fall when the federal government announced new standards for funding and notified 132 organizations that run Head Start centers that they weren’t measuring up.  The “re-competition” guidelines, as they are known, list seven trouble spots. If an organization receiving a Head Start grant has problems in one of those seven areas, it will have to compete for renewed federal dollars against other organizations that want to run Head Start programs in the same geographic area.

In 2012, this means movement is likely on at least two fronts: Newcomers – whether school districts or community-based organizations – will be preparing to win grants in the cities and towns where the 132 grantees have stumbled. And the other current grantees – at least those with their wits about them – will be double- and triple-checking their financial systems and ramping up the training of their teachers to ensure that they are offering a high-quality experience to the pre-kindergarten students in their care.  The Classroom Assessment Scoring System – the tool used to determine the quality of teaching in the new federal guidelines – will continue its surge as a standard-bearer for good interactions between adults and children in Head Start.

#7 Quality Rating & Improvement Systems (QRIS)

Tiered Quality Rating & Improvement Systems were big priorities in the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge competition, but there has been little research on whether or not these systems improve program quality or learning and development outcomes for young children. (QRIS systems often use a simple three- or four-star rating to summarize information on program quality in multiple domains, such as child/staff ratios and teacher credentials, and present it in formats, such as interactive Web sites, that help parents make more informed decisions about where to place their children.)

RTT-ELC required states to develop a plan to validate their QRIS, showing the relationship between quality ratings and children’s learning outcomes. Last year, Early Ed Watch raised a few questions about this. For the most part, quality rating and improvement systems have not included children’s learning outcomes as a component of the rating scale. Traditionally, the systems measure inputs like the ones mentioned above.  We haven’t yet dug into the winners’ applications to read their plans, but the resulting research is sure to be valuable. What will we learn about quality ratings and learning outcomes?

We’ll be watching how winning states improve their systems and how California, Minnesota and Washington bring their existing pilots or small regional efforts to scale. What implementation challenges will these states encounter? How will they make the information accessible to parents? How will states encourage or require childcare centers and early education programs to participate? Will winning states offer ample technical assistance and support to centers looking to improve quality?

#8 Assessment and Teacher Evaluation

Among the most controversial priorities of Race to the Top and the Obama administration’s other education reform grant programs was the requirement that states and districts use student achievement data — typically standardized test scores — to evaluate teachers. Because most states currently test only in math and reading and only at some grade levels, states like Colorado and New York, which have promised to evaluate all teachers based on student learning growth, will now need to develop assessments for many more subjects and grade levels.

Most problematic could be how states choose to assess the youngest children, for whom conventional tests may not be appropriate, and in non-traditional subjects, such as music, visual art and physical education. If such assessments are seen as unfair to teachers, there could be many more clashes around the country between policy-makers and teachers’ unions — like the debate currently taking place in New York, in which the state Department of Education has threatened to withhold Race to the Top funding from districts whose teachers’ unions oppose attempts to tie teacher evaluation to student test scores. As states roll out their new plans for teacher evaluation, how will teachers in the early grades be judged? This is an opportunity for states to make much better use of observation to assess how teachers are doing. Will they seize the chance?

#9 Teacher Education

As schools struggle to make the most of fewer resources, lessen educational achievement gaps and promote academic achievement, research on teacher preparation and professional development, especially in the early years, will be paramount. A report from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), scheduled for release in fall 2012, will survey 1,400 higher education teacher preparation programs around the country and study the outcomes and quality of each one. That survey follows an Education Sector policy proposal to improve teacher preparation; a recently-released report from NCTQ exploring student teaching programs; a Department of Education proposal for teacher reform and improvement initiatives; and a paper from our team here at the New America Foundation focusing on teacher preparation and certification for faculty in the early grades.

Despite this foment of activity, many questions remain: Will teacher residency models, in which teacher candidates work with a mentor teacher to gain experience before becoming full-fledged teachers, continue to grow? How will states develop alternative certification options? And what will come of the collaboration between Teach for America and the National Education Association on teacher preparation?

#10 Technology’s Role in Early Ed

It used to be that education technology was left to the educators in late-elementary, middle and high schools. No more.  Over the past few years, digital technology from kid-friendly cameras to touchscreen tablets has become increasingly visible in early childhood settings and, without question, in households with young children.

New research funded again this year by the U.S. Department of Education’s Ready to Learn program is starting to provide some insights into how technology can be harnessed to help young kids learn math and literacy. More conferences, such as the second-annual Early Education and Technology for Children meeting in Salt Lake City in March, are grappling with the intersection of digital learning and early education. And this will be the year that the National Association for the Education of Young Children, in conjunction with the Fred Rogers Center, releases its long-awaited position statement on how technology should be considered in early childhood settings, including preschools and pre-K classrooms, kindergarten and the early grades.  The statement – which the Early Education Initiative has commented upon formally and seen in early drafts – should help educators sort out how to use technology in appropriate ways that stimulate creativity, hands-on learning and enable access to children’s literature and other valuable content. Already some school districts are purchasing rafts of iPads and other technologies for kindergarten classrooms, and preschools are pondering the purchase of interactive white boards. While there will surely be some who question the wisdom of putting screens in front of kids in early childhood, technology is undoubtedly coming to their classrooms in some way, shape or form. Guidelines for smart use cannot come a minute too soon.