The historic closing of 49 elementary schools in Chicago left many parents bitter and feeling left out as they try to get involved in new schools. Yet parent engagement is essential for school improvement, and principals are faced with the challenge of building trust at schools that scored poorly on surveys of parent involvement.
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Race to the Top application thwarted by unfinished programs
Illinois lost out on $70 million in Race to the Top money for early childhood programs, largely because key initiatives like a state assessment for kindergartners were planned but were not yet in place.
The decision left early childhood advocates in Illinois scratching their heads, but they pledged to find a way to turn the ideas outlined in the application into reality.
Scoring sheets released by the U.S. Department of Education reveal where Illinois lost major points in its Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge application.
On Friday, the U.S. Department of Education announced that nine states -- California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington -- would share the $500 million set aside for the early learning challenge.
This is the third time Illinois failed to win Race to the Top money. However, another $200 million in federal competitive grants is coming online. The U.S. Department of Education plans to announce which states will split that cash later this month.
In the early learning challenge application, Illinois also lost points because the state had not yet launched a new preschool and child care rating system, and had not begun efforts to educate child care providers and preschool teachers about new early learning standards. State advocates and officials had rewritten the early learning standards in order to improve the state’s chances of winning the grant.
The state’s failure to choose a kindergarten readiness assessment and begin testing children with it cost it a large number of points. The state missed out on about 17 points over the issue; with those points, it would have outscored even some winners. However, given the short period of time between the contest announcement and the application's due date, it is likely that there is little the state could have done differently.
Robin Steans, executive director of education advocacy group Advance Illinois, notes that Illinois had been working on the kindergarten readiness assessment long before the contest guidelines were announced.
Steans also noted that one judge out of five rated the state far harsher than others, giving a score 37 points lower than the next-lowest reviewer and dragging down the state’s average. “You are going to get some outliers,” she says.
Steans says the Race to the Top process encouraged “movement, change and adaption” on Illinois' part. But not getting the money after outlining the plans slows things down. “At a time when you’d really like to be building momentum, it makes it tougher to do that,” she says.
Gaylord Gieseke, vice president of Voices for Illinois Children and a member of the Illinois Early Learning Council, says it is too soon to know exactly how the loss will change Illinois’ plans.
She says the state will move ahead with implementing a quality rating system for child care and preschool providers, rolling out the new early learning standards and creating the kindergarten assessment.
“There was tremendous value in the process, and I think Illinois now has clearly a sense of where we want to go next and what we want to do,” Gieseke says. “There’s been a huge effort, and a very significant strengthening of the collaboration.”
She adds: “On the national scene, we will be working hard to advocate for another opportunity in the coming federal budget, so that they go another round.”
Other areas where the state lost points from reviewers include:
A lack of emphasis on parent participation; a lack of specifics on how several family engagement and recruitment initiatives would work; and a lack of depth in the state’s parent engagement standards
Recent declines, due to state funding cuts, in the number of children being served in state preschool programs
Goals that reviewers felt, in some cases, were not attainable or not specific enough
A lack of a plan for expanding the number of spots available in high-quality programs, particularly when state funding for expanding Preschool for All is limited
Questions about whether the state would be able to find money to dramatically expand its quality rating system for child care and preschool providers (the application calls for making participation mandatory)
Concerns that automatically giving Head Start and Preschool for All programs a four-star quality rating, as planned, could be unfair or counterproductive (Mayor Rahm Emanuel has endorsed this idea and made it a key part of his early childhood efforts)
Criticism from one reviewer that the Community Connections model, where children are transported from home child-care programs to preschools, does not have research to support it and could actually be detrimental when “brain research tells us that good practices in early-childhood settings minimize both the number of transitions and the number of caring adults in a child’s life each day.”
Problems with the different supports offered to different kinds of programs. Some reviewers found fault with the application’s assertion that home-based child care providers may lack interest in obtaining credentials or implementing a formal curriculum. Several mentioned that training on assessing children and improving teacher-child interactions should be emphasized in all programs, rather than reserved for those at the second-highest quality tier.