Early Learning Key Part of Race to the Top Education Reform Conversation

Posted on 22 January 2010

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By Catherine Atkin

Earlier this week, California joined the competition for federal Race to the Top education reform funds, and early childhood education advocates were pleased to see that early learning is a key component of the state education reform agenda that is laid out in the application.

In vying for its share of the $4.35 billion in federal funds, California mentions early learning repeatedly throughout its 129-page application – a recognition that early learning programs play an important role in making the state competitive for a share of the funds.

Advocates were also happy to see that among the 800 local educational agencies that signed agreements to address each of the Race to the Top reform areas, nearly a third also committed to improving the quality of early childhood education by helping students make better transitions between preschool and kindergarten, a voluntary element of the agreements.

Hoping to encourage local innovation and turn around the lowest-achieving schools, California says it would provide challenge funds to local educational agencies with such schools so that they can implement quality preschool programs and smooth the transition between pre-k and kindergarten.

California also proposes using Race to the Top funds to pave the way for a comprehensive, statewide education data system by incorporating and linking a pre-k information system to the existing K-12 one. Coordinating and sharing such education data would help officials identify effective policies and areas for improvement, allow teachers to better understand and respond to students’ needs and assist parents in finding and comparing information about schools for their children.

Additionally, the state proposes investing Race to the Top funds in a professional learning community of researchers, providers and other early learning experts who would share data and effective ways to increase access to high-quality early care and education.

Seeking to demonstrate that California has already taken steps to build a foundation for reform, the state highlights its progress in improving and expanding early childhood education as one of three examples of its success. Among the early learning advancements California has made, the state notes the areas of assessment, professional development, foundations, curriculum and resources.

The application also cites two recent developments – a plan for implementing a quality rating and improvement system and the California State Advisory Council on Early Childhood Education and Care, established when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order last year. Both of these position California to receive millions more in new federal early learning funds.

Advocates look forward to more work on both fronts this year, with the culmination of current work on developing the quality rating and improvement system, and the creation and leadership of the new advisory council.

As another measure of California’s success in improving and expanding high-quality early childhood education, the state emphasizes First 5 California investments in supporting children’s access to high-quality programs in communities across the state. It also notes that First 5 provides a comprehensive system of education, health services, child care and other crucial programs. First 5’s work is funded by the voter-approved Proposition 10, which authorizes a 50-cent tax on each pack of cigarettes sold.

The focus on early childhood education throughout the state’s application underscores that early learning is a critical component of education reform. Research also tells us that it can help close the achievement gap by getting our kids ready to learn and succeed.

And California’s Race to the Top application identifies yet another reason for making our children our top priority, concluding that the best way to a long-term economic recovery is to invest in a high-quality education system – beginning with preschool.


Catherine Atkin is president of Preschool California, a nonprofit advocacy organization working to increase access to high-quality preschool for all of California’s children, starting with those who need it most.

Child's brain absorbs information like a sponge, so while the brain is not blocked to give him useful information. The sooner he starts getting it, the more effective education.
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