A growing emphasis on greater standards for quality early education is emerging from the Obama Administration’s ‘Race to the Top’ Early Learning Challenge (RTT). Nine states were recently awarded a collective sum of $500 million in grant money to jump-start improvements to early childhood programs.
Early childhood is the often neglected, but has proven to have significant impact on the long-term outcomes of children. Evidence suggests that quality early education programs give children the social, language and number skills they need for school. When children start school behind, they often stay behind. However, early interventions can dramatically improve cognitive and socio-emotional abilities of children, and have a long-term positive economic impact on kids—increasing the likelihood of graduating from high school and securing employment.
Obama’s Race to the Top has generated competition among states to help children from birth to age 5 be prepared for kindergarten. Winning states will use the funding to build better cross-state systems to improve early learning outcomes, focusing on centers for at-risk youth, child care, and public and private pre-schools. By focusing on the “school readiness gap,” RTT engages states to “align and raise standards for existing programs; improve training and support for the early learning workforce through evidence-based practices; and build robust evaluation systems that promote effective practices and programs to help parents make more informed decisions.” A common thread behind the Early Learning Challenge, and the administration’s prior RTT challenge focused on K-12 education is the underlying emphasis on data to drive decisionmaking and reform.
Aligned goals, and common standards for what early education programs are seeking to achieve are critical not only for driving emphasis on important facets of early learning, but also in supporting coordination amongst the various systems that serve young children. There is no single ‘system’ for early learning—instead, we have to consider the universe of inputs that impact a child’s learning. A variety of systems are involved, ranging from public and private day care and home-based care, health systems, social services, to mental health systems. Success is not only dictated by the quality of early childhood programming, but also parenting, resources available to support families and communities, access to safe spaces to play, and the like. Creating common, aligned standards and investing the resources to track appropriate outcomes for child development can help parents, practitioners, and policymakers track progress, and make better judgments on changes that are needed.
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