When Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the new $500 million Early Learning Challenge Grant competition in late May, educators weren’t the only ones who joined him at the event. Duncan was accompanied by an array of leaders from outside the education world who endorsed Duncan’s call for increasing investment in early education.

“To win the future, our children need a strong start,” Duncan said. Like the previous Race to the Top rounds, Duncan says he wants this one to be a game-changer that will strengthen early childhood programs. The goals: improve low-income children’s access to early learning programs; develop better coordination among the mosaic of programs already offered; provide better training for those who work in the field, who are often low-paid and lack college degrees; and create clear learning standards and age-appropriate, high-quality assessments for young children.

The $500 million is cause for celebration among early childhood advocates, especially since it represents the lion’s share of the $700 million that Congress allocated to Race to the Top this year. Even so, it’s a comparatively small amount of money compared to the $4 billion for the original Race to the Top.

Policymakers for The New America Foundation point out another caveat on the organization’s Early Ed Watch blog: 

“At a time when research studies like the Head Start Impact Study have shown the limits of relying too much on pre-kindergarten programs without any coordination with high-quality kindergarten and first-grade programs…this new grant program represents a lost opportunity.”

A smooth transition

To ease the path to formal schooling, children need experiences that help them become familiar with a new setting and new expectations. Activities that can help ease the transition include:

  • Visits to the kindergarten classroom
  • Workshops and networking for parents
  • Attendance at school events, for parents and children
  • “Get ready for kindergarten” sessions at school

Source: Transition and Alignment policy brief, 2010, Education Commission of the States

That lost opportunity is the chance to push states to strengthen alignment between early learning and K-3 education. It’s a strategy that the early education world is pushing, with good reason. What’s the use of providing children with a rich preschool experience, only to send them off to a school that doesn’t capitalize and build on what they’ve learned? Not only is doing so a potential waste of a child’s future—it’s a waste of the money poured into preschool.

In Chicago, the need for strong transition and alignment takes on added importance because of the gains low-income children are making in preschool. The Chicago Program Evaluation Project, a study of Chicago preschool programs, found that high-risk children (including those learning English or living in a single-parent home) made substantial progress in vocabulary development, literacy and math.

 “Some people have the idea that early childhood education programs are a vaccination,” says Barbara Bowman of the Office of Early Childhood Education in CPS. “[They think] if we just have this when you’re 3 and 4 years old, you need never go to a good school, you need never have a good teacher again.”

The Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education has begun a new national study of children who started kindergarten last fall. The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2010-11 will provide data about children’s learning and development. A diverse group of children in both half-day and full-day classes will be included, and the study will continue through their 5th grade year. The research can be expected to provide more evidence of how full-day programs can provide the most benefit to children.

On this front, Chicago’s policy is out of sync with many other big districts. While the majority of children in Chicago are in full-day kindergarten, it comes at a price: The district only foots the bill for a half-day program, forcing schools to pay the rest of the cost of a full-day program with their discretionary money. The impact of the policy on schools, and children, became clear to Associate Editor Rebecca Harris during her reporting for this issue of Catalyst In Depth. At Ashe Elementary School in Chatham, the year began with a full-day kindergarten class of 14 children. By late September, late arrivals pushed enrollment to about 40, forcing the school to split the class into two half-day programs. Some parents pulled their children out, while others scrambled to find after-school or before-school child care.

At Catalyst press time, state lawmakers had proposed a budget that would slash education funding by $171 million. With such a bleak financial picture, it’s even more important for schools to spend smart. One way to do so is to target cash to full-day kindergarten across the board.

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