Maryland was one of nine states that won a federal competition Friday for early education funds intended to boost the quality of programs available to young children.
The state, which has been seen as a strong proponent of early childhood programs for the past decade, will receive $50 million to help young children become better prepared to enter kindergarten. Thirty-seven states entered the Race to the Top for early learning, and the winning nine states will split $500 million.
"Maryland has been a remarkably progressive state in early childhood for a long time," said Sharon Lynn Kagan, co-director of the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia University.
The other winners, announced Friday morning at the White House, are California, Delaware, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington. Six of the states, including Maryland, won funds in the Race to the Top competition for kindergarten through 12th-grade programs. Of the nine states, Maryland was ranked No. 6 by the panel of judges. North Carolina was the top scorer.
State education officials have promised to pursue several new initiatives, including one that would give parents a rating system for early childhood programs and another that encourages centers to use a curriculum that would ensure young children have the skills they need when they enter kindergarten.
For the past decade, Maryland has had teachers test every public school student's readiness when they enter kindergarten. In 2001, 49 percent of all kindergartners were judged ready for school, but that figure rose to 81 percent last year.
Using part of the $50 million, Maryland will collaborate with Ohio to revamp the assessment.
"I can say that Maryland is engaged in a very thoughtful process of revamping its already fine assessment system. I am very optimistic that … Maryland will be a pioneer in our nation regarding the kindergarten assessment," Kagan said in a conference call with reporters.
Rolf Grafwallner, assistant state superintendent for early childhood education, said the state is particularly interested in helping build better programs for young children in low-income neighborhoods. While the state has seen growth in the past decade in the percentage of students considered ready for kindergarten, it has not been able to reduce the gap in preparedness between low-income children and the rest of the population.
"We are trying to boost high-quality programs in low-income neighborhoods," he said.
Maryland has promised to produce a rating system for parents searching for a good program — including home day-care centers and pre-kindergartens — that identifies whether a center has met certain standards, said Grafwallner. The rating, which will be similar to those for restaurants or hospitals, would be voluntary but would give owners the ability to prove to parents that they have trained staff, and a curriculum and programs that will prepare students for kindergarten.
Grafwallner said one of the advantages of winning the grant is that the state will be able to link early childhood education with the formal education system so that more students will succeed in school and be prepared for college or a job.
"Maryland's #1 ranked public schools will now be able to implement many strategies to improve early childhood education in our state," Gov. Martin O'Malley said in a statement.
Billions are spent annually in America on early education programs, but the quality and availability of those programs varies greatly. Roughly half of all 3-year-olds and about a quarter of 4-year-olds do not attend preschool, said Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.
Children who attend quality early education programs have been shown to do better in school and make more money as adults, and be less likely to spend time in prison later. But children from low-income families who start kindergarten without any schooling are estimated to start school 18 months behind their peers, a gap that is extremely difficult to overcome.