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Preschool Matters Today

NIEER’s Comments on Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge

July 11, 2011

As NIEER noted last week, officials from the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services released draft guidelines for the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) program and will be accepting comments on those guidelines until 5pm EDT today. The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) applauds this early learning initiative and offers the following comments.

– The program calls for a focus on children from birth to age 5. This is an ambitious approach. It should be recognized that current federal and state policies are not adequate for 3- to 5-year-olds; states cannot simply assume this work is done and move on to children under age 3. Neither federal nor state programs for 4-year-olds are sufficiently effective, and 3-year-olds are basically ignored by most states’ early education policies. Yet, simultaneously improving all services for children from birth to age 5 would be a tremendous undertaking and states are hard hit now by the recession. States should be permitted to take on major investments in one sector or program at a time in the context of a broader plan for the entire system. They should not be pressed to produce unrealistic plans for creating seamless high-quality, birth to age 5 systems in a short time with inadequate resources.

– Far too much publicly subsidized and provided early care and education is of such low quality that it fails to significantly enhance child development. Some publicly funded services may even have modest negative impacts on children. The questionable quality of services provided by some public programs for young children makes quality enhancement a more pressing goal than expanding access. Increased enrollment should become a goal only after a program is good enough to substantially enhance learning and development. Infant-toddler care should have a particularly high priority for quality improvement.

– Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) are not a proven approach to improving student learning. A QRIS can incentivize some programs to improve their quality for higher reimbursement rates, but those programs are likely to be the ones with the most resources from the start. Too often, programs that are struggling financially will be unable to raise their quality enough to earn the higher rate without more assistance than most QRIS provide. For various reasons QRIS may provide little more than window dressing with respect to improvements in quality or financial incentives for improvement. Ratings systems can become ineffectual. Increased investment in research is needed to learn from different state experiences as they develop and implement QRIS.

– Assessment is a useful tool in continuous program improvement, but must be used with caution. Assessments alone should not be used to make high-stakes decisions about individual programs or children. The regulations call for increasing understanding among educators as to the uses and limitations of various assessment types—this is paramount to ensuring data is collected and used responsibly to improve programs. Assessments aligned with standards can give useful information on what is and is not working in a program, and should be used to guide trainings, professional development, and technical assistance. Yet, many professionals do not sufficiently understand the strengths or limitations of various assessments and the appropriate purposes for which they may be used. For example, it is common to see screening tests used completely inappropriately. Beyond the particulars of assessment, it is important that early childhood professionals be educated about the difficulties in making causal inferences about programs from assessment data and the kinds of evaluation designs required for valid inferences.

– The development of the required kindergarten entry assessment for all students is an ambitious feat, and applicants may need significant guidance in implementing a strategy that works. Current regulations call for educators to implement assessments, though policymakers must be warned of the potential bias of not using third-party evaluators. A kindergarten entry assessment can also only supply so much information regarding readiness and progress without some prior assessment to use as a “baseline.”

– Developing valid and reliable assessments that can be used for every child entering public kindergarten by the 2014-2015 year is a large task with considerable expense. The federal government provided Race to the Top assessment grants for consortia of states to develop valid assessments for students in the upper grades. A similar grant program for early learning would enable states to work together on an early childhood assessment system that is valid, reliable, and manageable. Such an endeavor is likely to be unaffordable state by state; additionally, the field could benefit from collaborations among states so that information collected is comparable across state lines.

– Workforce development is an important goal in providing high-quality early learning experiences. We support the regulations’ focus on improving educators’ knowledge and competencies, and further professionalizing early childhood education to recruit and retain the best teachers. Collaborating with institutions of higher education is essential to ensuring credential requirements truly reflect the skills and knowledge needed to teach young children. Professional preparation and development efforts should formally integrate with higher education to permit seamless career development. Every child deserves a well-educated lead classroom teacher, and one route to this is a bachelor’s degree with an appropriate specialization. Teachers should be properly trained in curriculum, assessment, and pedagogy. Similarly, professionals benefit from supervision by properly trained administrators (e.g., principals, directors, coordinators). Furthermore, NIEER recommends that states address policies for scheduling and staffing patterns requiring adequate time away from children to plan curricula based on assessment and to engage in professional development.

– Judging states based on commitment and investment since 2007 may disadvantage those states whose attempts to develop early learning systems have been slowed by budgetary constraints, especially given the fiscal conditions of these last four years. These states could significantly benefit from additional funding and technical assistance offered through RTT-ELC. Peer reviews should use caution when measuring states against the criteria of prior commitment, as these funds may be exactly the “jump start” some states need to catalyze early learning investment.

NIEER looks forward to the release of the final regulations and to the chance for states to bolster their programs for the youngest learners.

– W. Steven Barnett
Co-Director, NIEER