We Have to Quit Playing Catch-Up

Only one in three four-year-olds attend a high-quality preschool program — and the number for three-year-olds is much lower. Across the country, children remain on long preschool waiting lists, and families who could benefit from support as they raise their children remain unserved.

Early LearningToday, six states learned that they will have vital new support to build systems that help to solve that problem. Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) funding was awarded to Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Vermont. These states join 14 others that have received RTT-ELC grants and are building their capacity to serve preschool children with quality, accountability, and efficiency.

These new awards bring the Obama Administration’s education funding commitment in early learning systems building to more than $1 billion. With that investment and their own state funds, a bipartisan group of forward-looking governors have worked to increase support for high-quality early learning in their states.

President Obama has put forward a plan, called Preschool for All, that would make high-quality preschool available and affordable for all families, without adding a dime to the deficit. Last month, a bipartisan group in Congress introduced bills to support high-quality preschool services for low- and moderate-income families.

And, many states, and cities, are building new organizational structures, aligning systems, eliminating redundant programs, and raising the bar for teacher preparation. A recent report from the Education Commission of the States documents 38 bills from 25 states that establish state preschool programs; implement quality rating and improvement systems; pilot a school readiness assessment, and more.

In Michigan — one of the new RTT-ELC states — leaders realized that a robust investment in early learning is the best way to rebuild the state’s economy.  Led by Gov. Rick Snyder (R-Mich.), the state legislature voted to invest $60 million more next year on preschool programs. This funding increase of nearly 60 percent will add up to 16,000 more four-year-olds to state-funded preschool next year.

Ultimately, RTT-ELC is only a down payment on early learning – strong systems are not enough. High-quality early learning programs fail to reach the majority of America’s youngest learners – due to a state’s limited capacity, lack of resources, or both. Much more needs to be done.

We have to quit “playing catch-up, and level the playing field for our children before they start kindergarten,” as Secretary Duncan recently said at a global education summit. As business and military leaders, law enforcement officials and educators have repeatedly said, high-quality preschool is the right move to make sure our youngest children are ready for the world ahead of them.

Libby Doggett is the deputy assistant secretary for policy and early learning at the U.S. Department of Education. Linda Smith is the deputy assistant secretary and inter-departmental liaison for early childhood development at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Collaboration and Hope Curb Violence in Aurora, Illinois

Sixth Graders

Inspired by a presentation they heard from Aurora-based Cabot Microelectronics, a “Pathways to Prosperity” partner, a group of sixth-graders designed the “Best Illinois Middle School App” in the Verizon Innovative App Challenge. Photo courtesy of West Aurora School District 129.

As we strive nationally to make communities safer, Aurora, Ill. has made some headway, and education is a key component. Over the past decade, the population of the nearly-200,000-strong city surged almost 40 percent while its violent crime rate significantly fell, with no murders in 2012. Mayor Tom Weisner credited his city’s safety progress to strong collaboration among law enforcement agencies, education, public works, and other public and private entities at the recent launch of Aurora’s Pathways to Prosperity initiative.

“We’ve been implementing, enhancing and growing programs that give our young people productive alternatives to gang activity,” said Weisner, who noted that Aurora’s anti-violence efforts were sparked by a brutal trend that reached its height in 2002, with 26 primarily gang-related murders in the city.

The mayor said it’s crucial for “kids to be able to see themselves as being successful” to give them hope. Recognizing that “the goal of getting a 4-year degree isn’t for everyone,” Aurora participates in Harvard University’s “Pathways to Prosperity” initiative, which develops career pathways for students to jobs in high-growth fields through collaborations between businesses and education. Pathways to Prosperity’s Illinois initiative will utilize resources of Illinois Pathways, a closely-aligned program that received ED Race to the Top funding awarded to the state in December 2011.

Columbia College Student Alex Perez

Columbia College student Alex Perez teaches elementary students how to tie neckties during a monthly Boys II Men “Juniorversity” session. Photo courtesy of Boys II Men.

Pathways to Prosperity aims to increase and enhance programs like Aurora West High School’s Health Sciences Career Academy, created 15 years ago to prepare students for careers in the high-growth healthcare industry. Aurora health occupations teacher April Sonnefeldt said the program has helped prepare many students to get certification for jobs like entry-level nursing positions, and has given “others the confidence to go all the way through med school.”

The mayor also praised non-profit Boys II Men for “teaching young men to respect themselves.”  Inspired by grief and frustration from the 2002 murders, the Aurora-based mentoring organization has been replicated internationally. While Jared Marchiando — a founding Boys II Men member and its first president — is now a college graduate working in finance, he’d previously been “going down that road towards gangs.”

“I needed positive male role models, and some discipline, and I got that through Boys II Men,” said Marchiando, who remains actively involved with the organization. He encourages students and parents to celebrate positive academic outcomes, like “most improved student” as much as sports achievements. He also emphasizes the importance of reaching out to students before their teens, noting that, “if you don’t reach kids by 3rd or 4th grade, it’s often too late.”

An early learning initiative, SPARK (Strong, Prepared And Ready for Kindergarten), was launched in 2012 and aims to build positive education environments for Aurora’s youngest children in both structured settings and in homes. Supported by four school districts, Fox Valley United Way, the city of Aurora and the Dunham Fund, SPARK also will benefit from Illinois’ Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grant received in December.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done, and we need to remain vigilant,” said Weisner, sadly noting that a 14-month period of no murders in Aurora ended with the recent killing of a teen. “Most kids turn to crime and to gangs when they don’t have hope.”

–Julie Ewart is the Director of Communications and Outreach in ED’s Chicago Regional Office.

Investing Early: One of the Smartest Things We Can Do

Race to the Top-Early Learning Announcement

Official Department of Education Photo by Joshua Hoover

“This is an important moment in our effort to build a world-class education system in America,” Secretary Duncan said this morning at a White House event to announce the winners of the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC). Duncan joined HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and White House Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes in announcing the nine states that had won.

“Everyone who works in education can agree that investing in early learning is one of the smartest things we can do,” Duncan said. “Whether it’s elementary school teachers or prize-winning economists, they recognize that high-quality early learning programs pay dividends down the road.”

Thirty-five states, D.C. and Puerto Rico submitted plans for the Challenge, and today’s event announced the nine winners: California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington.

White House Event

Official Department of Education Photo by Joshua Hoover

“We believe progress like this won’t be limited to the nine states awarded funds today,” Secretary Sebelius said. “By pushing everyone to raise their game, we intend to foster innovation in early childhood programs around the country. And I look forward to following their progress in the months and years ahead.”

The RTT-ELC will support these states in developing new approaches to raising the bar across early learning centers and to close the school readiness gap. Awards will invest in grantees’ work to build statewide systems of high-quality early learning and development programs. These investments will impact all early learning programs, including Head Start, public pre-K, childcare, and private preschools.

Click here to read today’s press release, and visit ED’s Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge website.

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Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge Application Released

“Successful early learning programs are not just about education but about the whole child – including their physical and emotional health,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on a conference call this afternoon with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to announce the Obama Administration’s release of the final application for the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC).

The two Departments have worked together over the last four months in an unprecedented effort.  Nearly 350 organizations and individuals provided comments to the draft criteria put out in early July.

RTT-ELC will provide $500 million in state-level competitive grants to improve early learning and development programs with States getting about $50 to $100 million. The goal of the Challenge is to ensure more children with high-needs from birth to age five—including those from low-income families—enter kindergarten ready to succeed.

“Brain scientists tell us that the early years are when critical cognitive development takes place. Social scientists tell us that the investments we make in early childhood programs can have a huge payoff down the road,” said Secretary Sebelius.

States chosen for the RTT-ELC will need to demonstrate a commitment to improving their early learning and development programs as well as adopt common standards within the State that will help determine what young children should know and be able to do, as well as define program quality.

States awarded funds under RTT-ELC will also implement appropriate assessments to help monitor students’ progress to inform practice and improve program quality. Secretary Duncan explained that “we are not asking three year olds to take bubble tests.” Just as good early childhood educators are doing now, we are asking that early childhood educators have the observation and documentation skills they need to evaluate a child’s progress along a set of appropriate early learning and development standards.

Read the press release of today’s announcement, and click here to learn more about the RTT-ELC and to view the application.

Arne Joins Senator Harkin in Iowa to Highlight Early Learning

Secretary Duncan joins Senator Harkin for a roundtable discussion with Iowa educators and community leaders (Official Department of Education Photo by Paul Wood)

“I don’t even use the word ‘preschool’ any longer, because I think education starts at birth,” explained Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) yesterday at an early childhood education event in Des Moines, Iowa. Harkin, who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, joined Secretary Duncan at Carver Community School to highlight the importance of early learning as an investment in the future well-being of America’s students.

Senator Tom Harkin at Carver Community School (Official Department of Education Photo by Paul Wood)

Duncan and Harkin joined education and community leaders from across Iowa in a roundtable discussion on the importance of quality early learning programs, focusing on how these programs have benefited both rural and urban communities.

Secretary Duncan highlighted the administration’s recent announcement that it will invest $500 million in a state-level Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge. The Challenge will reward states that create comprehensive plans to transform early learning systems that include better coordination, clearer learning standards, and meaningful workforce development and family engagement initiatives.

While in Iowa, Secretary Duncan also delivered the keynote address at the Iowa Education Summit where he offered his assessment of Iowa’s progress in strengthening its education system.

For more information on ED’s Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge, click here.

 

A Major Investment in Helping Students Get Off on the Right Foot

“Investing in early learning is one of the smartest things we can do as a nation,” said Secretary Arne Duncan earlier this morning at a town hall meeting with US Human and Health Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to announce a new $500 million state-level Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge. Secretary Sebelius explained that “the only way America can out-compete the rest of the world is if we out-educate the rest of the world … And the only way we can do that is if every child gets a healthy start and a rich early learning experience.”

The Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge rewards states that create comprehensive plans to transform early learning systems with better coordination and assessment mechanisms, clearer learning standards, and meaningful workforce development and family engagement initiatives.

Providing a strong educational foundation for our nation’s children doesn’t start on the first day of kindergarten. Research makes it clear that excellent early learning programs result in short- and long-term positive outcomes, including better high school graduation rates, higher college enrollment, and improved completion rates. Yet only 40 percent of 4-year olds are enrolled in preschool programs.

The Obama administration has been committed to improving the quality of early learning programs since day one, and the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge continues that commitment by moving the field and supporting breakthrough work that will change the quality of early learning programs across America.

Vice President Biden also noted that these programs help not only kids but whole families. “Expanding access to such early education and child care programs will also make it easier for working parents to hold down a job – a key priority of the Middle Class Task Force – giving them peace of mind that their children are in a high quality learning environment while they are at work.”

As part of this Challenge, we are inviting you to provide ideas, comments and suggestion. Please visit our Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge page and join the conversation.

Watch the entire town hall, and listen to a conference call that ED staff held with stakeholders following the announcement.