Early Learning Focus Grows, Expands at ED

In May, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) expanded its commitment to the preparation children receive prior to kindergarten, an area recent research has shown to be integral to academic success, with the announcement that new Race to the Top funds would be used for grants to enhance early childhood education. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius joined business, law enforcement, and military leaders to announce the Race to the Top—Early Learning Challenge, highlighting how investments in high-quality early learning programs help reduce crime, strengthen national security, and boost competitiveness.

But those grants are only the beginning. Recently, the Department has shown that it is serious about reinforcing early education.

Earlier this month, the White House blog announced Head Start reforms—an effort that will involve both HHS and ED—with the following:

“We know that the first years of our children’s lives are critical. That’s when the most rapid development happens in their brains and when they pick up the social, emotional, and academic skills that will help them succeed. When children get what they need during these early years, it can lay the foundation for success in school and through every stage of their lives.”

Head Start grants are awarded to local public, private nonprofit, and for-profit agencies to provide comprehensive child development services to economically disadvantaged children and families, with a special focus on helping preschoolers develop the early reading and math skills they need to be successful in school. Head Start programs promote school readiness by enhancing the social and cognitive development of children through the provision of educational, health, nutritional, social, and other services to enrolled children and families.

Recently, ED announced a proposal to create a new Office of Early Learning to oversee the Race to the Top—Early Learning Challenge grants and coordinate early learning programs across the Department. "Effective early learning programs are essential to prepare our children for success in school and beyond," said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. "A dedicated early learning office will institutionalize, elevate and coordinate federal support for high-quality early learning, while enhancing support for state efforts to build high-performing early education systems."

Senior Advisor for Early Learning, Jacqueline Jones will head the new office, which will operate within the Department's Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE). Winners of the Early Learning Challenge are expected to be named in December; 35 states have applied.

This article appears in ICW's November 2011 newsletter.