In 1992, recognizing the extraordinary power and reach of public media, Congress scaled up its investment in children’s educational broadcasting. Under the banner of the Ready-To-Learn Television Program, Ready to Learn (RTL) is a competitive grant program administered by the U.S. Department of Education. Grants are awarded to non-profit, public telecommunications organizations for the development and distribution of educational media programming and multiplatform resources for preschool and elementary age children, particularly in low-income communities, to promote school readiness.
The program was authorized by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and reauthorized by Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015. RTL launched in 1995 and grants are awarded in five-year cycles.
The first waves of RTL funding spanned two five-year grants that allowed PBS stations and children’s media producers to build on the success of existing shows - Arthur, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Reading Rainbow, and Sesame Street – as well as to create new ones – Dragon Tales and Between the Lions. As part of this effort, the country’s local PBS stations distributed more than 3 million books to children from low-income families, and provided more than a million parents and childcare workers with training in the basics of effective literacy instruction.
Between 2005 and 2010 RTL’s focus shifted to best practices identified by the National Reading Panel and resulted in the development or enhancement of popular and award winning shows such as Super Why!, Martha Speaks, The Electric Company, Word World, Sesame Street and Between the Lions, To carry-out this work, RTL grants were awarded to CPB and PBS, as well as a collaborative based at Chicago public station WTTW. This cycle of the grant program also brought a renewed focus on reaching low-income families through innovation in outreach and partnerships. New regulations stipulated that grant funding should be used for research and evaluation of program content to ensure efficacy.
Three awards were made in 2010 to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Public Broadcasting Service (CPB-PBS), Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network (HITN), and Window to the World Communications (WTTW). For CPB and PBS this work resulted in the development of two new PBS KIDS math properties, Peg + Cat and Odd Squad, while grantees from HITN produced the Pocoya Playgrounds collection and WTTW developed the UMIGO (yoU Make It Go) property, Most recently, two awards were made in 2015 to CPB/PBS and Twin Cities Public Television with a focus on science and literacy content and innovations in personalized learning and community engagement.
RTL has evolved to fit the changing nature of media. Original grants focused on developing early literacy skills through community, teacher, and family engagement and television programming. In more recent awards, the program expanded to include multiple media platforms. For example, between 1995 and 2000 awardee, CPB and PBS, in partnership with hundreds of public television stations around the country broadcast educational television programs that derived from the grant and distributed RTL learning materials to their communities.
The 2010-2015 grant cycle expanded the requirements for eligibility to include “transmedia storytelling,” which involved using multiple media platforms to communicate content. These platforms could include television, cell phones, computers, e-books, online games, or other electronic mediums. The same standard for multiple platforms was also applied to distributing materials to public telecommunications organizations and communities.
The most recent iteration of the grant program, initiated in 2015, expands the focus of the program further. Applicants were invited to develop educational programming focusing on literacy, science, or both topics. Both awardees from the 2015 cycle included a science framework in their proposed plans.
Since the 2005 cycle, the program has placed a heavy emphasis on evidence-based content and learning results, and therefore the importance of research and evaluation. While annual reports to the Secretary and Congress had been required since inception per ESEA, the 2005 grant solicitation required that 25 percent of grant funds be used for research and evaluation of content and effectiveness, and the program continued to make a strong commitment to efficacy research. Through partnerships with research organizations, such as the American Institutes for Research, EDC, SRI International, The Michael Cohen Group, WestEd, and universities, grant recipients began to identify effective content and outreach strategies. In 2010, the grant solicitation specified that programs should be evaluated using criteria from What Works Clearinghouse, a part of the Department’s Institute for Education Sciences. Between 2005 and 2015, there were over 100 studies, reports or publications about the RTL grantees.