Advice for Duncan: 'Race to the Top' Needs A Larger Dose of Early Ed
Tomorrow is the deadline to submit comments on the Department of Education's proposed guidelines for Race to the Top, the new grant program created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Secretary Duncan released draft guidelines for RTT last month, and with more than 650 comments submitted so far, he is getting plenty of feedback on his vision.
Race to the Top gives the Secretary unprecedented discretion to dole out $4.3 billion in grants to states over the next year. But the money doesn't come free. States have to be looking pretty good in Duncan's eyes even before they apply for the money. What's more, if they want their applications to have any shot of being competitive, they will have to show that they are already making progress on many fronts, including working toward common standards, allowing for the creation of more charter schools and using longitudinal data systems to track students' performance.
The stipulations and criteria have caused a lot of consternation among state education leaders over the past few weeks, partly because the guidelines for participating are so tightly defined. In an analysis conducted by The New Teachers Project, only two states appear to meet each one of the Department of Education's expectations. Five states -- California, Michigan, Nevada, New York and Pennsylvania -- do not even meet the basic eligibility requirements, according to TNTP.
From a K-12 education reform perspective, this is a depressing picture, as our sister blog, Ed Money Watch reported earlier this month.
Representatives from the early education community are finding cause for some hand-wringing as well - primarily because the grant program's guidelines make very little reference to pre-K and give only passing attention to ensuring that content and learning standards for K-12 are aligned with the needs of young children.
"The draft is quite specifically written as a K-12 document," said Mark Ginsberg, executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, in an interview with Early Ed Watch. "Our hope is to provide some guidance to shape it a little further so children in the early grades are well included so they have the support they need -- support that is very different than what middle and high school students need."
Take the Education Department's emphasis on common standards, for example. In remarks last month, Secretary Duncan indicated that states could get a jump on the competition for Race to the Top funds by committing to adopt voluntary national standards currently being developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Many advocates in the early childhood community desire strong standards too. But they want to make sure that expectations for pre-kindergarten children are part of the picture, and they worry when they hear Duncan's oft-cited remarks on standards that push to ensure teenagers are "college and workforce ready." The NAEYC submitted a letter to the Education Department last week stressing the importance of developing standards with a forward progression, as children grow and develop from year to year, instead of "backmapping" standards from the later grades downward.
The program's focus on K-12 standards is also worrying to the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, and the Pew Charitable Trusts. These four influential philanthropies submitted a joint letter to Duncan obtained by Early Ed Watch. It urged that "voluntary national standards should begin at pre-k, be grounded in child development principles and be aligned with national assessments of kindergarten readiness and third grade performance."
"The Race to the Top Guidance misses a central opportunity to embed early learning into the Administration's reform agenda," they wrote.
Susan Neuman, a former Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education who is now a professor of educational studies at the University of Michigan, agrees. "Vertical alignment must include pre-kindergarten standards," she wrote in comments she submitted this week and shared with us. (All of these submissions, by the way, are being made public on regulations.gov -- hundreds are already available there for viewing.)
The "vertical alignment" that Neuman is talking about comes from a section of the Race to Top guidelines called "P-20 Coordination and Vertical Alignment." This refers to the hopeful prospect of states creating seamless systems that include early childhood programs that are connected to K-12 schools and up through higher education. It's encouraging to see that section in Duncan's proposal -- it's a sign that Race to the Top doesn't want to ignore early childhood altogether. But unlike most of the criteria laid out in the program's proposal, this coordination isn't a requirement, nor will it result in any "bonus points" being awarded to states as they compete for grants.
Here in the Early Education Initiative, we agree with these calls for more inclusion of the early years in the Race to Top guidelines. As our director Sara Mead wrote on National Journal's Education Expert Blog last week, "The guidance that the administration released recently on Race to the Top says virtually nothing about pre-k-even though each of the four school reform areas that RTT focuses on has an obvious pre-k connection."
How should those connections be made? The letter from the four philanthropies lays out some good ideas that include and go beyond the call for standards. Pre-K data, they argue, should be included in states' data systems, and states should be encouraged to create a new PreK-3rd teaching credential.
As the Department of Education sifts through the stream of comments arriving this week, we hope that some of this feedback will make its way into the final criteria for grant applications. As Buffett, Kellogg, Packard and Pew put it, it would be a shame to miss this opportunity.
UPDATE 9/3/09: The New Teachers Project was inadvertently named as The National Teachers Project in an earlier version. The link to its analysis has since changed as well, reflecting an updated version.