Improving and Expanding Early Learning: Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge

March 26, 2014

By Pascal Beaudette

In December 2013, the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL) with a $51.7 million grant to improve Georgia’s early learning programs.[1]  This education update describes Georgia’s existing early learning programs and how DECAL and other participating agencies will use the federal grant to improve program quality, access, and outcomes for young learners.


“We must make a concerted effort to increase the percentage of children reading at grade level by the completion of third grade…Students must “learn to read” in order to “read to learn” and when we fail to invest in our youngest students, we are forced to spend money on remediation for the remainder of their academic careers.”

-Governor Nathan Deal, 2012 State of the State Address


DECAL’s Commitment to Early Learning

Georgia’s commitment to early learning program began over twenty years ago with the inception of the Pre-K program.  Georgia’s Pre-K program is a state-funded program for all four-year-olds in the state.[2]  All children are eligible, regardless of parents’ income.  In 2012, 60% of the state’s four-year-olds participated in the Pre-K program, and over fifty-eight percent of these Pre-K children are low-income students.[3]    In addition to the nationally renowned Pre-K program, DECAL offers additional programs for young children and their families, including rating child care programs, licensing and monitoring child care facilities, and funding an online tool to help families find affordable, quality child care in Georgia.


A recent external study of Georgia’s Pre-K program compared participants in Georgia’s Pre-K program with similar non-participants and found that Pre-K participants:

  • Had better language and literacy skills, such as letter knowledge and letter-word identification;
  • Showed better math problem solving abilities and counting skills;
  • Exhibited higher levels of basic self-knowledge, such as full name, age, and birthdate; and
  • Did not exhibit statistically significant differences in behavior or vocabulary.

For more information on external evaluations of Georgia’s Pre-K program, visit DECAL’s website.


 Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge

Funded by the federal government, the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) strives to increase access to quality early education, especially for students with high needs, and improve readiness for Kindergarten.[4]  Because of its success in early education, Georgia was one of six states to receive a grant in the third round of the competition.  Fourteen other states received grants in the first and second rounds.[5]  Georgia will use the $51.7 million award to build and strengthen existing early learning programs.  Specifically, Georgia will focus on the following areas:

  1. Building Successful Statewide Early Learning Systems
    1. Create four Early Education Empowerment Zones (E3Zs) in areas with substantial populations of children with high needs to improve infrastructure for early learning systems.  The goal is to increase the availability of high quality child care by providing financial incentives for existing facilities to improve their quality of care and for other high-quality providers to open facilities within the E3Zs.  By combining its own data with data from the Department of Economic Development, the Department of Community Affairs, and the Department of Education, DECAL plans to identify the 4 E3Zs by the end of 2014.
  1. Increasing High Quality, Accountable Programs
    1. Drastically increase participation in Quality Rated, Georgia’s Quality Rating and Improvement System, which assigns ratings to participating child care programs.  Based on independent observation and a portfolio submitted by the child care program, DECAL assigns each program one, two, or three stars that indicate whether the program meets standards and goes above licensing requirements. The grant funds will ensure Quality Rated provides an accurate measure of program quality.  
    2. Expand research and data activities to evaluate Quality Rated.
  1. Promoting Early Learning Outcomes
    1. Expand the newly launched Georgia Early Learning and Development Standards (GELDS), a set of skills, behaviors, and concepts that are appropriate and attainable for children aged birth to five years.  The grant will provide for additional resources, tools, and professional development opportunities for educators and families and for additional alignment with national standards in regard to English Language Learners.
    2. Expand Great Start Georgia by creating home visiting and family engagement hubs in each E3Z.  The goal of family engagement is to enhance families’ knowledge of parenting and childhood development.  Early educators will be trained to promote family engagement, especially for families of children with disabilities and dual language learners.
  1. Developing a Great Early Childhood Education Workforce
    1. Encourage cooperation among higher education institutions to increase students’ success in earning early childhood education credentials.
    2. Expand scholarships and incentive programs to promote continuing education among early childhood educators.
  1. Measuring Outcomes and Progress
    1. Augment the current assessment of kindergarten readiness to provide an assessment within the first six weeks of kindergarten.  The results will be used to individualize kindergarten instruction, gauge overall kindergarten readiness, and analyze the effectiveness of Pre-K programs.
    2. Expand the quality and quantity of data collected by enabling uniform data collection from participating state agencies and early learning programs and by facilitating data sharing among participating state agencies.


Georgia has a long track record of successful early learning programs.  Its Pre-K program is one of the few nationally that is open to all children, rather than only those from low-income families, and has produced positive results in children’s language, literacy, and math skills.  In addition to many other programs, DECAL offers assistance in finding quality, affordable day care through its Quality Rating System and single online source of child care referrals.  Through the RTT-ELC, Georgia will expand and improve these successful programs.



[1] DECAL is the lead agency for this grant.  The following state agencies are also participating agencies: Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, Georgia Alliance of Education Agency Heads, Georgia Children’s Cabinet, Georgia Department of Community Affairs, Georgia Department of Economic Development, Georgia Department of Education, Georgia Department of Human Services, Georgia Department of Public Health, Georgia Family Connection Partnership, Georgia Public Broadcasting, Governor’s Office for Children and Families, Governor's Office of Student Achievement, Georgia Professional Standards Commission, Office of the Governor, Head Start State Collaboration Office, and the Technical College System of Georgia.



[2] For more information on Georgia’s Pre-K program, click here to access the April 2013 education update.



[3] Source: DECAL Early Learning Challenge Grant Application



[4] The RTT-ELC is separate from Georgia’s existing Race to the Top grant, through which Georgia was awarded $400 over four years in 2010 to implement a robust statewide education reform strategy. 



[5] For a list of states receiving grants, visit the RTT-ELC website (Retrieved March 26, 2014).