Cynthia Tate, former Executive Director of the Illinois Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development and current BUILD State Services Liaison and NCIT Hub Lead describes how Illinois benefited from the federal government’s competitive grant program, the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge.
Kids Win Big Thanks To The RTT-ELC
By Cynthia Tate, Executive Director of the Illinois Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development
As Executive Director of the Illinois Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development, my role is to ensure that children and their families are surrounded and served by high-quality early learning services. To do this, we focus on a system that provides quality programming to reach all children, especially those who are most vulnerable.
Doing this is hard, and that’s why I am so pleased that our state, along with 19 others, benefited from the federal government’s competitive grant program, the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC). We have done great things for our youngest children with this investment. In Illinois, we understood that we could not elevate the quality of early care and education without a strong infrastructure. That’s why we focused and used this opportunity to:
- Establish our QRIS, ExceleRate.
- Strengthen our approach to supporting the teachers who matter so much to our children through Gateways to Opportunity credentialing system.
- Develop new community collaborations and systems.
- Get started with our approach to kindergarten readiness assessment.
We innovated in meaningful ways that will inform our work for years to come, long after the federal funding has ended. Our approach to early learning and child development is stronger now. Ongoing investment is needed but this multi-year, one-time boost has firmed up our foundation for quality.
One of the intentions of the RTT-ELC was to find a way to bring together public servants who are working on the same goals for children, families, and communities, but so often exist in separate agencies with different funding sources, programs, and regulatory requirements. The RTT-ELC acknowledged this and asked states to tackle this problem. It provided an opportunity for our state leaders work in a more focused and coordinated manner. In Illinois, we focused our collective impact at the state level by supporting program-level quality improvement, workforce credentialing and professional development, and overall data system capacity building. Our state has always been known for its strong statewide approach, and the program-level, workforce, and data work were logical extensions of our state traditions. But the ELC gave us another opportunity to work at the community level through Innovation Zones. These Zones focused on high-risk communities and allowed us to improve access to quality services, raise awareness of early childhood programs, facilitated access and enrollment, and fostered new partnerships among schools and community agencies.
While each of the RTT-ELC states responded to its own context, Illinois joined the other participating states with a shared focus on the twin goals of accountability and continuous quality improvement in early care and learning programs. Accountability builds trust and that continuous quality improvement is an obligation to the children and families who use the services. All states did this by focusing on their Quality Rating and Improvement Systems. We’re recognizing that parents want to know that their children are in a high-quality program. Illinois stepped up its efforts in this area with many innovations in ExceleRate, Illinois’ QRIS. Programs were rated as Gold, Silver, or Bronze Circle of Quality – each representing an increased level of attainment of quality standards. Each state has its own success story to share—but we know that all the states are now focusing resources to enhance quality in a strategic manner, rather than offering a one-size fits all approach that does not meet the needs of early care and education providers throughout the state.
Illinois has always prided itself on understanding that strong professional support is essential for the people who work in early learning. We leveraged the RTT-ELC to continue our work in this area. Now, because of Race to the Top investments, early care and education teachers can participate in a professional development and credentialing system, “Gateways,” that allows them to achieve increasing levels of competency and credentials.
The RTT-ELC gave us the resources to invest in the data systems and research needed to answer important questions about the early learning and development system. In Illinois, as in Georgia, Washington and other RTT-ELC states, we used the funds to develop and coordinate early childhood data systems. The data systems are allowing us to answer questions about our workforce and the children in each of our systems.
As a state leader, I believe I speak for my colleagues when I say that the RTT-ELC investment has been essential to building the state infrastructure that elevates quality, supports the workforce, and provides data. I would like every state to have the resources to focus on ways to get to quality, and to step back from the day-to-day program planning and implementation to think and act big with partners from every corner of the country.
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