05/24/2012 09:49 am ET Updated Jul 24, 2012

As School Districts Compete for Federal Race to the Top Dollars, It's Time to Think Beyond School Walls

On May 22, the U.S. Department of Education released draft criteria for its latest competition: the Race to the Top (RTT) District competition. While early education is not prominently included in the draft criteria, it remains an option for school districts to include.

School districts concerned with improving outcomes for children would do well to look to kids' earliest years. High quality early childhood education that includes comprehensive health services and family supports improves the odds for high needs children, making them more likely to succeed in school and in life. As a competition that encourages innovation, RTT offers districts an opportunity to think beyond the school walls to address the comprehensive needs of children.

Among the selection criteria is a priority for the Department to consider whether applying districts have formed a coherent and sustainable partnership with public and private organizations, which could include community-based child care and early education in the district's area.

Such partnerships are to identify "population-level desired results," which according to the draft may span "cradle to career" and could include education, family, and community results.

The competition's emphasis on personalized learning should require districts to take a hard look at the varied needs of their at-risk children, a look that will likely reveal a range of support needs that are best addressed early on. School districts might consider addressing the "cradle to kindergarten" years by establishing strong partnerships that promote cognitive, social, and emotional development of young children from birth. Far too many young children arrive in school without a high-quality early education experience or without having had age-appropriate developmental screenings that could identify delays or potential challenges earlier. Many of these high-needs children can be reached through partnerships with existing child care and Head Start.

Several school districts have adopted innovative birth to five models that could be replicated. For example, Appleton, WI has a comprehensive birth to five plan that includes home visiting, resource coordinators and support services for families, and preschool. Grand Rapids, MI invests in Parents as Teachers as a way of reaching young children in the community in the care of family, friend and neighbor caregivers. Gwinnett County, GA has collaborated with community-based child care and Head Start to address kindergarten transition, including parent workshops, with a specific focus on recent immigrant families.

CLASP urges school districts including early education in their RTT plans to consider how they can foster healthy child development for children prior to school entry. Districts looking beyond the school walls might consider the following:

  • School districts can provide information and help parents access early childhood services in the community such as developmental screenings, home visiting, and Head Start and Early Head Start. While many districts are not the providers of early childhood services themselves, they have the ability to reach large numbers of families with young children.
  • School districts, in collaboration with community partners, can conduct needs assessments to identify gaps in services and help connect more young children and families to services. Districts could consider using the Early Development Instrument (EDI), a population-based measure for communities that measures children's readiness to learn by neighborhood in order to better understand how to target resources and supports where children may need additional health, mental health, or emotional support services. The EDI is currently being used by school districts across the country.
  • School districts could partner with community-based early childhood providers for joint professional development for early childhood teachers, directors, and principals on early childhood development and the best personalized learning strategies for young learners.

To be sure, there are concerns about including early education in a competition that includes a focus on using student outcome data for teacher evaluations. The competition could be strengthened by the Department of Education outlining the appropriate use of assessments for young children, which includes for purposes of improving program quality rather than rewarding or penalizing children, teachers, or programs. This would ensure that school districts could address the needs of children in the earliest years without risking engaging in inappropriate assessment practices. It might also help dissuade the notion that any evaluation system based on student data should necessarily include the early childhood years.

Race to the Top District offers an opportunity for localities to consider both the needs of young children in communities prior to school entry as well as the vertical linkages between early learning and the primary years. School districts can be important partners in building community-wide comprehensive early childhood systems. Those that are successful commit resources and create links across health services, family support, early intervention, and early learning and engage partners across settings including the school district, child care, and Head Start.