Yesterday I took advantage of my summer break and decided to pretend I work in DC in education policy. I headed downtown to attend a forum held by the New America Foundation on Race to the Top's new early childhood focus grant. I wanted to hear what those in the policy world were thinking about this, and what it may mean in the long run for our kids.
Originally I was thrilled when I heard that Race to the Top was adding an early childhood piece. Not that I've had really any hope that RttT is working (grant it, I do not work in a state that has benefited from it), but the mere fact that it was going to specifically address early childhood issues seemed promising. At last- has someone been listening to us?
Although I found the discussion fascinating, overall I came away disenchanted with RttT's Early Learning Challenge (RttT ELC). As one of the other audience members asked in her question, is this just the Administration's way of giving a nod toward early childhood, without making any true and meaningful inroads?
Providing quality early childhood services is a multi-step process. One step needs to ensure that the childcare currently available is quality childcare, and is providing children with the appropriate developmental support they need to be ready for kindergarten. The next step is increasing access to more affordable early childhood education to more families. This is where the largest challenge is found- making sure quality early childhood programs are available in low-income neighborhoods while also making sure the quality programs do not interfere with the parents' work schedule (if they do the parents are more likely to choose another option that provides better hours for their schedule). As someone who teachers kindergarten in a low-income neighborhood, my largest concern is increasing the childcare opportunities available in our community. However, both of these pieces must be addressed to increase the opportunities for early childhood in our country. And sadly, it seems that RttT ELC will primarily provide for working toward improving the quality of the care and not additional access to care. While improving the quality is wonderful, it is difficult to know so many children who come to kindergarten with no daycare or preschool experience. They've never been in a large group of children away from their parents, and many have never listened to read alouds, been exposed to print in their environment, exposed to early number concepts, or even played with blocks, puzzles, or worked on sorting.
Unfortunately, RttT ELC will most likely only provide funding for 5-8 states for 4 years. While it is hopeful that these states may become leaders in the field of early childhood education other states can follow, it is not a promise that early childhood programs will be improved for all of our children.