School-education-learning-1750587-hWhile Governor Branstad had a strongly worded executive order against Federal involvement in Iowa education policy stating, “The State of Iowa, not the federal government or any other organization, shall determine the content of Iowa’s state academic standards, which are known as the Iowa Core.”  It also added, “The State of Iowa, not the federal government or any other organization, shall choose the statewide assessments that will measure how well students have mastered the Iowa Core.”

Yet Iowa, along with 16 other states is applying for another Race to the Top grant, this one deals with their “early learning challenge.”

What does the Iowa Department of Education not get that Federal money comes with Federal strings?  Does the Branstad Administration believe we can’t exist without federal education dollars?

Here are the five key areas of reform that this grant addresses:

  • Establishing Successful State Systems by building on the state’s existing strengths, ambitiously moving forward the state’s early learning and development agenda and carefully coordinating programs across agencies to ensure consistency and sustainability beyond the grant;
  • Defining High-Quality, Accountable Programs by creating a common tiered quality rating and improvement system that is used across the state to evaluate and improve program performance and to inform families about program quality;
  • Promoting Early Learning and Development Outcomes for Children to develop common standards within the state and assessments that measure child outcomes, address behavioral and health needs, as well as inform, engage and support families;
  • Supporting A Great Early Childhood Education Workforce by providing professional development, career advancement opportunities, appropriate compensation and a common set of standards for workforce knowledge and competencies; and
  • Measuring Outcomes and Progress so that data can be used to inform early learning instruction and services and to assess whether children are entering kindergarten ready to succeed in elementary school.

Grant awards last for four years and will range from $37.5 million up to $75 million.  This isn’t the first time Iowa has applied for this program.  They applied in 2011, and did not receive funds.

From their FY 2011 application (I’ve been unable to find a copy of the FY 2013 application thus far) we see:

Iowa’s comprehensive early learning and development standards describe what all children from birth to kindergarten should know and be able to do.  The Iowa Early Learning Standards (IELS) include a separate set of standards for infants and toddlers and preschool aged children.  The IELS address the essential domains of school readiness including Physical Well-Being and Motor Development; Approaches to Learning and Social and Emotional Development; Communication, Language, and Literacy; Mathematics and Science, and Creative Arts.  They are universally designed and developmentally appropriate.  Revisions to the IELS are in process to ensure they are culturally and linguistically appropriate.  A Diversity and School Readiness Committee, a partnership between the Department of Education and the Department of Human Rights, is working to ensure that representatives from Iowa’s diverse populations have a voice in the process, (pg. 23).

All programs operated by the Iowa Department of Education, including the statewide voluntary preschool program, Shared Visions and programs funded under IDEA are required to use these standards.  Here’s the history of these standards as told by the Iowa Department of Education:

Early childhood leadership in Iowa has long recognized the need for developmentally appropriate learning standards for children, ages birth through age five, in our state. During 2005 and 2006, in response to federal requirements under Good Start, Grow Smart Early Childhood Initiative and the Federal Child Care Development Fund, the Iowa Departments of Education and Human Services jointly established a process  and identified stakeholders to serve as the Iowa Early Learning Standards Writing Committee. The standards were developed through several months of work and formally adopted in 2006. Across the state,families and stakeholders from a variety of systems in early care, health, and education welcomed the Iowa Early Learning Standards.

In 2010, early childhood leaders began to identify the need to review and revise the standards, as well as show alignment between the standards and the Kindergarten to 12th Grade (K-12) Iowa Core. This process was included as a priority in the Head Start Early Childhood Advisory Council federal grant, received by Iowa through Early Childhood Iowa at the Iowa Department of Management. Early in 2012, as part of the work of the Early Childhood Iowa Professional Development Component Group, early childhood leadership from the Iowa Departments of Education, Human Services, Public Health, and Management, with partners from the Iowa Association for the Education of Young Children and the Iowa Head Start Association, approved a planned revision process. A widely diverse group of over fifty stakeholders was invited to be part of the review and revision writing team. This team met throughout 2012 in both large and small groups to produce a revised version of the standards, which has been adopted by Early Childhood Iowa.

I’ve honestly never heard of these (which is a little disconcerting).  I also don’t recall the Iowa Legislature directing the Iowa Department of Education to develop these so I’m curious what authority they have to do it and then mandate it for voluntary preschool programs, etc.

Looking at how the past application was scored I have some concerns about what the Department’s plan may be to strengthen these areas addressed in the application.

For instance Iowa was given 10.6 points out of a possible 30 for “supporting effective uses of comprehensive assessment systems.”  Are we seriously going to start assessing preschoolers?  We were given 16,6 points out of 20 for “building or enhancing an early learning data system to improve instruction, practices, services, and policies.”  What data are we collecting on 3 to 4-year-olds?  Apparently the U.S. Department of Education was satisfied in this area which worries me.  We were not scored at all for our standards – why?  I didn’t see this area addressed in the reviewers comments.

So my question is what exactly is the Branstad Administration promising to the Feds this go around?  It’s not ok for the Federal government to dictate standards and assessments to us, but it’s ok to seek their approval so we can receive Federal money?  If Governor Branstad is truly serious about avoiding Federal involvement and attachments to our educational system he would avoid seeking grants such as these.

Photo credit: Woodley Wonder Works via Flickr (CC by 2.0)

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