Early Learning Challenge Success Story

As a result of the Early Learning Challenge Grants, the number of programs in the 20 states’ highest quality tiers of their rating systems grew from 9,000 to more than 21,000 – a 134 percent increase since the states applied for their grants. In addition, more children with high needs are in these higher-quality programs.

What’s the Issue?

By providing every child with a strong start, high-quality preschool is a critical means of expanding educational equity and opportunity. Studies have shown that attending high-quality early education can result in children achieving more positive academic, health and social outcomes. Children attending early education programs are more likely to excel in school and succeed in future professional endeavors than those lacking early education experiences. They are less likely to drop out of high school, have interactions with the criminal justice system or experience teen pregnancy. Research has shown that taxpayers receive a high average return on investment when providing high-quality early childhood education.

What was the intervention?

The Obama Administration has consistently called for expanding high-quality early education. The Administration has invested more than $1 billion to support closing the school readiness gap and raising the bar on quality across the 20 participating states’ early education systems.  As a result of the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge Grant Program, hundreds of thousands of children—particularly high-needs children and those from low-income families—are enrolled in high-quality, state-funded preschool and other early learning programs. Nearly 70,000 more early learning programs now participate in quality rating systems to enhance their programs, with more than 21,000 now rated highest in quality—more than double the number five years ago.

How was performance management useful?

The Department made access to high-quality early learning programs one of three early learning goals for the FY11-14 Strategic Plan and again for the FY14-18 Strategic Plan. The U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services have performed monthly monitoring calls combined with annual monitoring of progress in participating states. Annual national and state reports on the Early Learning Challenge continue to show improvements in the quality of early learning programs, in conjunction with increasing enrollment in the highest quality programs, especially from low- and moderate-income families,. The most recent report shows that thousands more children are now receiving developmental and behavioral health screenings to help early detection of medical or developmental issues. The report comes from the annual performance reviews for the 20 states receiving Early Learning Challenge grants since 2011. These reports capture the successes achieved and obstacles overcome by states within the past year.

What was the impact?

The Early Learning Challenge is a historic federal investment launched in 2011 that supports states in building strong systems of early learning and development to ensure that underserved children – including children from low-income and vulnerable families, as well as children with disabilities and English learners—have equitable access to high-quality programs. Forty states applied for grants, but, because of limited funding, only 20 states received awards: California, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin. These states are now working to align, coordinate and improve the quality of existing early learning programs across multiple funding streams, supporting children from birth through age 5.


Highlights from the grant reports include—

  • Nearly 70,000 early learning and development programs evaluated under their state’s Tiered Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (TQRIS) – an 85 percent increase since the states applied for their grants.
  • The number of programs in the states’ highest quality tiers of the rating systems grew from 9,000 to more than 21,000 – a 134 percent increase since the states applied for their grants.
  • Significantly more children with high needs are enrolled in programs in the highest quality tiers of their states’ rating system.
  • Nearly 267,000 children with high needs are enrolled in the highest quality state preschool programs – a 263 percent increase since the grants began.
  • Nearly 243,000 children with high needs are enrolled in the highest quality child care programs that receive federal child care subsidy funds – an 86 percent increase since grants began.
  • Nearly 211,000 children with high needs are enrolled in the highest quality Early Head Start/Head Start – a 189 percent increase since the grants began.


All 20 states under the Early Learning Challenge have made tremendous progress in expanding high-quality early education.


For example, for students working to earn their bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, California community colleges and universities have agreed to reconcile the foundational courses transferrable from two- to four-year institutions, allowing providers to begin their coursework at a low-cost community college and continue on at a four-year institution. In Maryland, the Coalition for Family Engagement is using parent-child learning parties to aid children and their families in successfully transitioning from community-based early childhood programs to public schools. New Jersey developed guidelines that highlight best practices from first- through third-grades to assist educators with applying practices both academically rigorous and developmentally appropriate.