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Advocates Split on Age-Focus in Race to Top Early-Ed. Contest

While early-education advocates are hailing the new Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge competition as a major advance in the field, debates are breaking out over the details.

For example, two well-respected thought leaders in early-childhood education, the National Institute for Early Education Research and New America Foundation's Early Education Initiative, take opposing viewpoints on whether the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge should encourage states to expand or narrow the age range of students served through their proposals.

Currently, the competition calls for states to focus on birth to age 5. However, NIEER's comments on the proposed guidelines warn this won't be as simple as adding strong zero-to-3 efforts to existing state pre-K and kindergarten programs, since pre-K programs mostly reach 4-year-olds. In a press call announcing the new competition, NIEER's executive director, Steven Barnett, referred to 3-year-olds as the "redheaded stepchildren" of most state policies, because they fall between zero-to-3 efforts and state pre-K.

NIEER recommends states "not be pressed to produce unrealistic plans for creating seamless, high-quality, birth-to age-5 systems with inadequate resources." Rather, they should be allowed to focus more narrowly on a subset of this age spectrum, "in the context of a broader plan for the entire system."

As an aside, even in states that recognize the importance of kindergarten, local finances may shortchange 5-year-olds. For example, Catalyst Chicago recently reported that the Chicago Public Schools routinely pays only for half-day kindergarten, leaving working parents scrambling, and shortchanging low-income children who need full-day kindergarten to catch up on school-readiness skills.

NIEER's comments also make the controversial assertion that the quality of early learning is so low generally that it would be better for states to focus on improving quality, especially in infant-toddler care and learning programs, before trying to increase access, a high priority in the current guidelines. NIEER warns that Quality Rating and Improvement Systems, given high priority in the guidelines, are not likely to drive substantial improvements, saying most programs will need more resources to improve than the financial incentives most current QRIS systems offer.

While NIEER recommends letting states narrow the age frame of their Race to the Top early-learning proposals as part of a relentless focus on improving quality, the New America Foundation's Early Education Initiative takes the opposite tack, pushing the feds to reward states that build pre-K-to-3rd-grade pipelines. The group would make that a "competitive priority" (meaning: must have) rather than an "invitational priority" (meaning: nice to have). It also suggests rewarding states that use Title I or other non-Race to the Top funds to create joint training opportunities for early educators and K-3 elementary school teachers, especially in the use and interpretation of kindergarten-readiness assessments.

Final guidelines for the competition are expected in mid-August. In the meantime, readers, what do you think? Is your state ready to take on pre-K-through-3rd-grade, or would your youngest learners be better served if the state took a smaller bite of the apple first?

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