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Education Reporter

Latest Race to Top Targets Preschoolers
The Department of Education will award $500 million to qualifying states in a new Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge. The Department said the competition is an effort to improve the quality of early childhood education and to provide greater access to pre-K programs. States may win $50 to $100 million by the end of the year.

Politically, the competition is a hat tip to two of the Obama Administration's favored constituencies. The education lobby - particularly unions - has long eyed the expansion of pre-K as a way to increase membership rolls, dues revenue and political clout. Feminists are another group who have pushed for increasing access to taxpayer-funded childcare provided for children at younger and younger ages.

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In addition to earning political points with education unions and feminists, the Early Learning Challenge also advances the Obama Administration's agenda to usurp state control over education by implementing "voluntary" national curriculum standards. In order to win, states must create early learning and development standards and assessments, give kindergarten-entry assessment tests, establish statewide standards for early childhood agencies, create a rating system for early learning programs, and have a system by which pre-K data is incorporated into overall longitudinal data systems.

Some have expressed concern about how states incorporate pre-school data into the longitudinal data system. One suggestion is to have a "unique identifier" for each child from pre-school to college. However, some feel that this kind of student identification tracking constitutes government intrusion into personal privacy.

Others, such as Sharon Kagan, co-director of the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia University, are concerned that the emphasis on education standards will choke out playtime for preschoolers and diminish the focus on "exploratory learning" for children.

Psychologist and brain science expert David Walsh backs up Kagan's concerns in his book Smart Parenting, Smarter Kids. According to Walsh, a formal learning environment is not the best way to prepare preschoolers for future academic success. What really helps kids thrive is lots of verbal interaction with warm, caring adults, plenty of time for imaginative play, exposure to books, and time exploring outside.

Although officials at the Department of Education say that the required assessments of infants and toddlers should not be used to hold children back from first grade, critics of the program fear that it will lead to high-stakes testing of very young children.

(Education Week, 8-24-11 and 7-13-11 and 5-11-11; blogs.edweek.org, 7-1-11)
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