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Comparing Competitions: Race to the Top vs. RTT-ELC

When the U.S. Department of Education announced the original Race to the Top competition in 2009, critics charged that the administration was rewarding some reform options at the expense of others. States with policies aligned with the administration’s agenda received extra points in the peer review process, so if they wanted a real shot at the billions of federal dollars up for grabs, they had to take legislative action and remove limits on charter schools, reconsider the use of data to evaluate teachers and more.

The new Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) is likely to take a similar approach – rewarding states that fit the administration’s definition of making progress – if the guidelines announced last week are preserved in the final draft. And the broad strokes are similar too, with foci on effective programs, data, standards and assessment.

Differences emerge in the details, especially because of the major differences in design between birth-to-5 programs and how education is delivered in public schools. By comparing specific priorities within the two competitions, we can start to see that the administration views early education reform as an opportunity for building better infrastructure (creating data systems and multi-domain statewide standards, for example), but places less of a premium on dictating exactly how that infrastructure should be used.

Here’s a side-by-side comparison: 

In order to apply for the funds, both competitions set a minimum threshold for eligibility. States that wanted to compete had to have already received approval from the U.S. Department of Education for their applications to the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF), a 2009 program that dispersed stimulus dollars to help states get through the recession. Additionally, states could not have any barriers to linking data on student achievement and growth to teachers and principals for the purpose of evaluation; this standard necessitated that some states take legislative action to meet the criteria prior to the application deadline.

In RTT-ELC, the state agencies that will be responsible for implementing the plan must sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) agreeing to execute the elements of the plan, including statewide standards and a state Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS). States are excluded from applying to the competition if they do not have an operational State Advisory Council on Early Childhood Education and Care – an automatic disqualifier for the few states that will probably not have formed an operational Council before the application deadline.

In the original RTT guidelines, states were rewarded if they adopted K-12 standards that were the same as those adopted by a state consortium (it’s no coincidence that the timing of the competition was in line with the development of the Common Core State Standards Initiative). For the RTT-ELC, states must show evidence that they have implemented or are developing statewide standards if they want to meet the application requirements. Additionally, states must show that they have established or are developing a statewide kindergarten entry assessment that covers multiple domains of children’s healthy development (cognitive, social-emotional, etc). Neither RTT-ELC requirement includes a provision that the standards or assessments be coordinated across state lines.

Another main focus of both competitions has been implementing statewide data systems. In the original competition, the expansion of statewide longitudinal data systems earned points for states, particularly if the state then planned to utilize the data in designing instructional plans. The RTT-ELC followed suit, providing an opportunity for states to earn points by building a data system that can connect with or be included in an existing state longitudinal system data linked to students in early education.

In both competitions, states could also win points based on the conditions that were already in place within a state. In the RTT K-12 competition, states earned points for themselves if administrators utilized teacher evaluations and a statewide longitudinal data system for “decision-making” purposes, and if they had no laws capping the number of charter schools that could be certified within a state. The Early Learning Challenge promotes the use of a Tiered Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) to evaluate and improve the quality of early education programs in the state, and it rewards states that have demonstrated a commitment since January 2007 to funding and promoting the improvement of early education.

The Race to the Top program, writ large, represents an impressive commitment to inject money into education, first for K-12 students and now, through RTT-ELC, with $500 million to build better systems for programs for babies, toddlers and preschoolers. But it is also a mechanism through which the administration can push its agenda. Its early education agenda is one that the Early Education Initiative has largely applauded.

But as we commented earlier this week, we see room for improvement. The competition needs some real rewards for states with serious plans for connecting their birth-to-5 and K-12 systems. Unfortunately, in both the original RTT and RTT-ELC, the importance of building connections across the educational continuum has not received as much attention as other reform areas.