The Top Early Ed News of 2011

article | December 21, 2011

As 2011 comes to a close, we took a few minutes to review the progress – and pitfalls – of early childhood education news over the year. So before we jump into another year of news and analysis, here’s a look at some of the major stories featured on Early Ed Watch this year. Happy New Year!

Early Learning Challenge Put in Place: This year Congress finally moved forward on the long awaited Early Learning Challenge, albeit in a different form than originally envisioned and proposed. Instead of a stand-alone grant competition with its own line item in the federal budget, the early learning competition was a piece of $700 million in new funding passed by Congress for a third Race to the Top K-12 competition. The Departments of Education and Health and Human Services carved out $500 million for a separate Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge to support birth-to-5 programs and systems. The focus of the competition is helping states build coordinated systems of high-quality early learning programs for all children, especially high-needs children. The application was released in August and we predicted the top contenders. Nine winners were announced last Friday: California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington.

Pushing Quality in Head Start: This was the year for new, long-awaited rules on what constitutes bad behavior among organizations that receive Head Start funding. The rules, which generated 16,000 comments, push accountability for grantees with problems in at least one of seven trouble spots by requiring them to compete for renewed federal dollars against other organizations that want to run Head Start programs. President Obama announced the rules in November, stating that as many as one-third of programs would be deemed unworthy of guaranteed renewals, and the Office of Head Start has so far informed 132 grantees that they are not measuring up.

States Struggle to Preserve Pre-K Funding: Many states have managed to preserve and even improve their levels of pre-K funding during the recession. But as money from the February 2009 stimulus bill runs dry, concerns deepen over whether states will cut pre-K further in the coming years. This year, North Carolina cut 20 percent from its state-funded pre-K program for children from low-income families and began requiring 8 to 10 percent co-pays from parents, a move that may lead to a showdown in court and which many say will prevent the neediest children, those who need the program most, from enrolling. The State of Preschool 2010 report found that states spent $700 less per child during the 2009-2010 school year than during the 2001-2002 school year, with final numbers still to come on how much was spent per child in 2011.

Promise Neighborhoods Program Moves into Full Swing: The Promise Neighborhoods competitive grant program awarded its first “implementation grants,” which will give five grantees the chance to try to replicate the famous, wrap-around education strategy of the Harlem Children’s Zone in their areas. The grantees will be given up to $50 million over a 3 to 5 year period. The program is still in its infancy, but interested parties are watching closely to see if grantees will succeed in creating sustained programs that can break the cycle of poverty in low-income areas. An additional 15 grantees received smaller grants to plan their own Promise Neighborhoods.

Attention to Teacher Quality a Priority: 2011 was chock-full of discussions and research on how to prepare, recruit, retain, develop, evaluate and compensate teachers. The Department of Education announced a plan for improving teacher preparation. Between Race to the Top and NCLB waivers, the Department also spurred states to overhaul their teacher evaluation systems.  But it wasn’t just the federal government thinking about how to improve teacher quality; the Gates Foundation shared initial results from its Measuring the Effectiveness of Teachers (MET) Project at the very end of 2010, and the National Council on Teacher Quality announced in early 2011 a review of every education school across the country. We added to the conversation, publishing two papers on topics related to teaching: teacher preparation in the early grades and observation tools in early education. And after the release of a controversial report on teacher pay from the Heritage Foundation and AEI, we weighed in on the real reasons behind  teachers leaving the profession.

Only Slight Movement on ESEA: The federal law known as No Child Left Behind made it through another year without any fixes, as Congress failed to reauthorize it. But a draft bill made it through the Senate committee in charge of education, with new proposals for early learning – some of which we think deserve a thumbs up while others are not strong enough. (Three recent posts give details.) When it finally is changed, the law will most likely be called by its original name: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Recommendations and background on Congress’s actions can be found on our special page on Early Learning in ESEA. In the meantime, the U.S. Department of Education has instituted a waiver policy for states hoping to avoid NCLB sanctions, though it too could be much stronger for early ed.

Congress (Finally) Reaches a Budget Deal: President Obama’s 2012 budget request included proposals to boost spending on Head Start, child care, and Title I. House and Senate proposals actually met a lot of the president’s requests for increased early childhood funding – but given the tight fiscal climate, that spending has still barely grown over the past two fiscal years. The supercommittee failed to reach a deal, but Congress finally managed (after four stopgap funding bills) to reach a year-end 2012 spending agreement. Congress included $550 million for Race to the Top in the bill, a portion of which can be set aside for early learning. It’s up to the Department of Education, but that could open the door for a second, likely smaller RTT-ELC competition next year. All in all, many early education programs fared far better than expected. For more details, check out our past posts here.

Also, don't miss the dozens of podcasts we recorded this year with early ed experts on topics as diverse as playtime, blending public funding, full-day kindergarten, iPhone apps, homework, the nation's report card, and mental health in early childhood.

There is much more to follow in 2012 – check back with Early Ed Watch for updates and developments to come. To look even further back, here’s our 2010 list.