The Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) is a competition that aims to promote smooth early learning for all children. The main agenda of this campaign is to address the gap that exists between children with high needs and their peers concerning their readiness for schooling. The Obama Administration has been in the forefront in spearheading efforts to promote proper learning for children with this form of disability.
The targeted children include those from low-income families and kids with disabilities ranging from birth to the age of five years. Scientists term this period as the formative age in a child’s life (Spiller, Spyker, & Casavant 2013). Therefore, it is important for children to acquire the necessary capacity that will ensure they are not only ready for school but also that they will have a successful future.
RTT-ELC is concerned about availing information and support to families with the view of preparing them to promote children’s growth and learning. The comprehensive approach employed aims to ensure that each family selects a programme that is best suited for the affected child as a way of further promoting the success of RTT-ELC. High-quality early education and programmes that are designed for children can boost a child’s health and social and emotional growth while at the same time improving their readiness for school (Camilli et al. 2010). The Obama Administration focuses on the following key areas: improving the quality of early education and development programmes and increasing access to proper early education for all children, especially those with high or special needs (Miller & Hanna, 2014).
The commitment by the federal government to addressing these early childhood problems is mirrored by the RTT-ELC campaign. This paper will discuss and evaluate the Race to the Top –Early Learning Challenge with the aim of establishing the success of this policy. It will also present the views of key stakeholders in the education sector regarding the effectiveness of RTT-ELC. Further, the paper will present key recommendations that may be employed to improve the policy.
Background of the RTT-ELC Campaign
On 25th May 2011, the federal government announced a $500million competition dubbed ‘Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC)’ that would bring together states under one common goal of promoting quality early education. This competition was sanctioned under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The Departments of Education and Defence would supervise it jointly.
RTT-ELC focused on demonstrating to the states the federal government’s commitments to ensuring that children were set on the path of success from an early age. The RTT-ELC was also tailored to help in cutting back at the challenges that children with high needs faced while undergoing or preparing for early childhood education. The desired result would be the creation of a level playground for challenged children to match their peers. Of special interest to RTT-ELC was the need to promote access to quality early learning. States were encouraged to take part in the competition, with the incentive awards in the form of funds being floated (The US Department of Education 2011).
The selection criteria for states to participate was tailored in a manner that only those that were truly dedicated to upholding capacity building and the core mission of RTT-ELC were allowed. These criteria revolved around five key requirements. The first requirement emphasised successful state systems. Second, a state needed to display a high quality and equally accountable programmes. States would also be required to demonstrate their efforts in promoting early education and children’s development outcomes. Fourth, they needed to show the presence of a progressive childhood education workforce, and lastly, have the proper mechanism for measuring outcomes and progress.
Early learning is crucial in the development of children. Kids from low-income families and those requiring special assistance often face challenges regarding access to quality early learning as compared to their peers. Poor early education may result in less-than-average academic achievement for a child in later years, eventually resulting in low accomplishment in life. One way of promoting equality in early learning is through the affirmative action.
This strategy has been observed to be an effective mechanism that if properly employed may promote equality regarding access to education opportunities (Daniel 2012). Different education policies have been designed to promote equality in education through affirmative action. One such policy is the Social Economic Status (SES) plan that was conceived and implemented in the Wake County, North Carolina (Brown 2010). The SES was enacted to eliminate racial inequality by promoting diversity in schools within the county (Brown 2010).
Policymakers on both levels of the government understand that inequality, especially by financial and racial factors, is a major cause of the disparity in early learning. A child’s social background has been shown to have a major impact on his or her intellectual capabilities. In his article, Weeden (2004) points out that certain factors such as birth weight and the amount of time kids spent watching television pose a great danger on a child’s academic achievement.
Weeden (2004) has also identified poverty as a major cause of low academic achievement among black youths. This trend of low education achievement begins at the early stages of brain development in a child, although it usually manifests itself in the latter stages of a young person’s academic life. Lipina and Colombo (2009) have also linked poverty with brain underdevelopment in children. Poverty means that parents spend most of the day working to raise income for the family, a situation that allows them little time to raise their children.
This knowledge puts on weight on both the federal and state governments to establish mechanisms for countering the impact that these challenges pose on the development of the affected children’s capacity. The RTT-ELC was conceived in full appreciation of the need to promote quality early learning. This competition challenges states to establish and implement proper early childhood programs that will confront the hindrances to full childhood development. Because of the nexus between poverty and poor early learning, the efforts of this campaign are centred on reaching low-income families. Policies aimed at reducing poverty concentration in schools have been shown to serve a great role in eradicating inequality in the education sector.
This section will discuss the approaches that have been effectively adopted in addressing the challenge of early learning in line with the RTT-ELC. The first proposal advanced by the Department of Education focuses on the improvement of teachers and the school heads’ quality of services. States applying for the RTT-ELC were required to demonstrate in their grant applications their approach toward improving the quality of their early education trainers (Miller & Hanna 2014).
In doing so, they would describe the measures they had put in place to improve the manner in which their educators were trained, supported, and evaluated. Educators are an integral part of an education system. Hence, it is imperative to work toward ensuring that they attain quality preparation. Quality training for educators will be transmitted to their learners (Ollerenshaw 2012). The Department of Education places emphasis on evaluation systems, with student growth data being a core factor in this assessment. This data must be used to inform decisions adopted by trainers and school principals.
Another proposal targets the challenges encountered by children from low-income families. Evidence has shown that children from poorer backgrounds are less likely to attend high-quality preschools (Reid & Kagan 2015). States have maintained the goal of bridging this economic challenge through initiating programmes that promote access to quality early education. However, as the question of what constitutes quality education persists, the focus has been on structural components, which include class size, teacher credentials, and the teacher-to-child proportion (Camilli et al. 2010). Recent research points to “procedure” quality as forming part of quality early learning (Reid & Kagan 2015).
Process quality involves elements such as emotional support and effective teacher-child interaction, which have been linked to better social and cognitive outcomes for children (Reid & Kagan 2015). Further research concerning what constitutes quality education has pointed to the importance of class composition. Concentration of children in high-poverty and high-minority classrooms may result in lower cognitive skills compared to children who are exposed to diverse classrooms.
According to Reid and Kagan (2015, p. 9), ‘The social composition of the student body is more highly related to achievement, independent of the student’s social background than is any school factor’. The findings have been backed by recent research that links race and ethnicity to student achievement (Mickelson, Bottia, & Lambert 2013; Kucsera, Siegel-Hawley, & Orfield 2015). Racially diverse schools report higher student performance when compared to high-minority institutions (Kuscera et al. 2015).
Nevertheless, policies that focus on racial diversity as a means of bridging the achievement gap continue to receive criticism. The opponents of the SES plan adopted to promote racial diversity often argue that the plan poses the risk of compromising the quality of education (Brown 2010). The SES is important in this discussion as it bears a key resemblance to the RTT-ELC as far as attaining diversity in learning institutions is concerned.
The proponents of the SES believe that reducing the high minority composition in classrooms promotes academic achievement among students from poorer backgrounds. While statistical findings have shown this situation to be the case, some parents are opposed to the SES since they claim it sacrifices the quality of education at the expense of promoting racial diversity (Brown 2010). The reason behind the argument by parents is that students travel long distances to the racially diverse schools. Parents opine that this movement exposes children to unnecessary strain, hence interfering with their ability to focus on academic work (Brown 2010).
Views by Key Players Regarding RTT-ELC
This section addresses how key players such as the National Early Childhood Organisations have viewed the policies and proposals outlined under RTT-ELC. The implementation of policy is highly balanced on the attitude and responses expressed by these stakeholders. For this reason, statements by the said organisations are worth reviewing in this policy paper. RTT-ELC received massive support from the stakeholders. The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children wrote in support of the competition.
The organisation termed RTT-EL as an opportunity to raise the quality of education, as well as access to early learning for children (The US Department of Education 2011.). The organisation further pledged to work with the two Departments in ensuring that homeless children actively enrolled in early education programmes. ZERO TO THREE, a non-profit organisation involved in preparing policymakers, professionals, and parents on ways of improving the lives of children, also showed support for the ELC grants.
States have also shown support for RTT-ELC through active preparation for participation in the RR-ELC challenge. For instance, Massachusetts and Oregon have directed RTT-ELC grants in the fight against homelessness (Lieberman 2014). The Massachusetts Coordinated Family & Community Engagement Programme has been engaged in educating families about the importance of early childhood education.
On the other hand, Oregon has channelled the RTT-ELC funds toward establishing early learning facilities that are aimed at increasing school readiness in the state (Lieberman 2014). The move is keen on reaching homeless children in the state. North Carolina has created a system known as The North Carolina Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Transformation Zone (RTT-ELC TZ), which aims at integrating all components of the early learning system (Yazejian et al. 2015). RTT-ELC has been instrumental in implementing its goals within the state.
RTT-ELC is a unique $4.35 billion programme that was created to boost early learning at the state level (Miller & Hanna 2014). It is designed to encourage states to adopt innovative approaches that will result in a robust early learning environment. Policymakers who designed the RTT-ELC were specifically keen on closing achievement gaps in early learning institutions by providing a level playground for all children. RTT-ELC is unique not only for the huge amount of funds involved but also because it challenges states to rethink the traditional approaches to early learning (Miller & Hanna 2014). One of the key components of the policy is longitudinal data systems. These data systems make it easy for policymakers to monitor the implementation progress of RTT (Miller & Hanna 2014).
Initially, a major requirement for states that intend to enrol for the competitive grant was the need to demonstrate efforts at improving their domestic early learning environment. This requirement was an important measure to ensuring the funds were only rolled out to states that were ready to fully utilise the grant in line with the goals of RTT. Applications for the grant by the states were made in three phases. In total, 45 states applied for the RTT grant.
The funds were rolled out in the three phases, with Delaware and Tennessee being the winners of Phase 1. Phase 2 winners included Florida, District of Colombia, Georgia, Maryland, Hawaii, New York, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Ohio. Phase 3 which was rolled out in December 2011 saw Arizona, Illinois, Colorado, Kentucky, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania as the winners.
Research by Miller and Hanna (2014) indicates the notable improvements in early learning across the states, which actively participated in the RTT. Many low-performing schools in these states recorded impressive results within a short period. This notable success in RTT states may be attributed to the deliberate efforts in the said states to close the early learning achievement gap. Many of these states reported that RTT resulted in improved performance for both educators and learners (Miller & Hanna 2014). One of the proposals by the US Department of Education was that states focus on improving instructors’ skills. Because of improving teacher effectiveness, states have been able to attain high achievement in early learning institutions over a short period (The US Department of Education 2011).
States should work to ensure that diversity is achieved in preschool classrooms. An integrated preschool classroom should include children from both high-income and low-income families, as well as kids from different ethnic backgrounds. As noted earlier, the concentration of children in high-poverty classrooms has been attributed to low cognitive skills in these children. Importantly, the concept of socio-economic status may not be easily separable from racial disparity.
Most of the low-income institutions are almost invariably found within minority communities. Therefore, there is the need to promote racial diversity in early learning institutions as an additional effort to address income disparity. Racial diversity has been attained in learning institutions through deliberate efforts to desegregate the previously segregated schools. Segregation in institutions of learning resulted in an unfair distribution of learning resources, including instructors.
For instance, the previous white schools had the best facilities while the black schools lacked in the most basic learning equipment and their instructors were barely qualified (Brown 2010). This trend has extended to early learning institutions to the extent of resulting in poor early learning for children from minority communities, which also happened to come from poor backgrounds. Reversing this trend will require a reduction of the high concentration of high-minority classrooms by bringing together children from across the races.
Secondly, there is the need to ensure that early childhood educators possess the necessary skills to guarantee quality training to children. This goal will be achieved by offering competitive training to these educators, as well as school principals. Teacher-child interaction has been credited as an important learning opportunity for a child. Potential instructors should also be encouraged to evaluate themselves based on their interest in working with children.
States may offer voluntary pre-college seminars where applicants who wish to undertake early childhood courses are educated on the unique children needs. Potential instructors must appreciate that they may be the first adults that children will interact with outside their immediate families. Separation from family is often a challenging time for a child. An instructor must be willing and equipped to assist such a child to adapt to the new environment. Another approach is to improve facilities in pre-schools that are found in low-income areas.
The RTT-ELC was designed to address the various challenges that undermine equality in the education sector. The RTT-ELC policy focused on promoting access to early learning for children from low-income families, as well as those with disabilities. The programme was reported to have attained huge success in various states such as Massachusetts and North Carolina. This success resulted from deliberate efforts employed by states to bridge the achievement gap in early learning institutions. As observed, schools in the low-income areas have lagged behind in terms the quality of learning facilities.
Effectively, children from the low-income areas continue to receive early education in this academically hostile climate, a situation that limits their chances of attaining full academic development. Upgrading these institutions is an important measure in ensuring a level playground for all children, which is the drive behind RTT-ELC. Trainers in these preschools should also be highly qualified and trained to achieve the necessary teacher-child interaction.
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