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School Year Begins, States Enhance PreK-3rd Continuum with Race to the Top Funds

As the school year kicks off, youngsters in Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Vermont can look forward to a more comprehensive and coordinated early learning experience, birth through third grade. These states won last year’s Race to the Top- Early Learning Challenge grants (RTT-ELC) and are now implementing many aspects of their early learning plans.

As my colleagues at the Early Education Initiative have previously explained, one significant difference between this round of RTT-ELC and prior rounds was the elevated emphasis on building PreK-3rd grade policies to sustain gains in early learning. The PreK-3rd grade focus changed from an invitational priority to a competitive preference priority—while both kinds are optional, competitive preference priorities are worth extra points (a significant ten points in this case).

RTT-ELC focuses primarily on helping states to build systems to support children birth to five-years-old, but this new competitive priority also encourages states to connect and coordinate their birth-to-five systems with what’s happening in elementary schools. Officials from the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, who jointly oversee the program, offer six ways that states could fulfill this competitive preference priority:

  • Align elementary school learning standards with early learning and development standards;
  • Address children’s health, behavioral, and developmental needs, and improve families' ability to address those needs;
  • Implement teacher preparation and professional development that focuses on developmental science, helps teachers understand how young children learn best, addresses children’s social and emotional needs, and includes family engagement strategies;
  • Build systems to support collaboration within and between early learning (birth-to-five) programs and elementary schools;
  • Create data systems that measure learning and development from pre-K through third grade; and
  • Implement efforts to improve literacy and math outcomes by the end of third grade.
This wasn’t meant to be an exhaustive list—any policies addressing the overall goal of sustained early learning outcomes were welcome. The following chart shows how the winners fared under this priority; Michigan, Kentucky, and Vermont received perfect or near perfect scores. So what exactly does a “perfect 10” look like when it comes to PreK-3rd approaches? We dove into Michigan’s application to find out.

RTT-ELC Blog Chart

It’s clear that Michigan officials realized the importance of a cohesive PreK-3rd grade system long before the Departments made it a competitive priority in this grant competition. In fact, the state has been working on a “prenatal to age 20” (P-20) strategy for several years.

In 2011, Governor Rick Snyder (R - MI) established the Office of Great Start (OGS) in the Michigan Department of Education, which is intended to “align the state’s early learning and development investments across [state agencies] to achieve a single set of shared outcomes for young children.” The Office is working to address the comprehensive needs of children from birth through third grade. For example, Michigan already has multiple systems in place to foster long-term gains after pre-K. For example, the state standards are aligned for children from birth through third grade in “all developmental domains and content areas.”

And several initiatives are underway to expand access to birth-to-five programs so that more children benefit from OGS’s work. The FY 2014 budget increased the number of slots in the state’s pre-K program by 63 percent. Officials are also experimenting with smaller scale reforms, such as Early Learning Enhancement Grants, which allow select programs to provide full-day, year-round early education and care services for at-risk children. Extended services not only better accommodate many family’s schedules, but also can help to reduce summer learning loss so that disadvantaged children lose less ground over the summer months.

Michigan is also working to strengthen its workforce so that educators can better meet the needs of early learners. Teacher preparation programs offer a newly revised early childhood endorsement that prepares teachers to work with children from birth to third grade. And in order to teach in the state’s pre-K program, teachers must have this endorsement or a degree in child development with a focus on pre-K. RTT-ELC funds, in the form of scholarships, are encouraging teachers with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education to earn the endorsement as well.  As my colleagues have previously explained, the skills needed to effectively teach pre-K and the early elementary grades are different than those needed to teach older students. This should be reflected in teacher preparation policies.

One new area of work for Michigan is improving birth-to-five program data collection and incorporating those data into state’s K-20 longitudinal data system. While the state’s data system currently includes basic data on children in state-run pre-K programs, it lacks important data on other childcare and Head Start programs. RTT-ELC dollars will help the state include information from these other programs. High-quality, connected data are essential for policymakers to effectively evaluate early learning initiatives and ensure that children are receiving the services they need.

Michigan was investing in PreK-3rd approaches prior to RTT-ELC. This new funding allows the state to strengthen existing efforts and close any gaps in the system. However, a prior commitment to PreK-3rd grade wasn’t necessary to earn a high score on this priority—Vermont scored 9.67 out of 10 without substantial PreK-3rd policies in place. Vermont’s application showed dedication to building an early learning continuum, defining “early childhood” as prenatal through third grade. The state will be working closely with FirstSchool, a “nationally recognized PreK-Grade 3 expert” to get their plan up and running (Michigan also happens to be piloting FirstSchool models). Kentucky is further along than Vermont—the state has already aligned early learning and K-12 standards, for instance, and is in the process of linking early education data to the state longitudinal data system. This includes data from the new Brigance® Kindergarten Screener, which assesses “student’s readiness for school across the five developmental competencies/domains,” providing educators and policymakers with useful information on where children are at developmentally and helping to determine which pre-K programs are effective.

Creating successful PreK-3rd grade approaches is no easy feat. And, there’s not just one way to do it. It’s clear, though, that helping children sustain gains made early on takes numerous, coordinated policies and a dedicated group of stakeholders birth-through-third grade. We’re glad that the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services have signaled this as a priority and are supporting states in the work.

Visit this page for more on our past coverage of the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge.