Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge

African American teacher with young children drawing in classroom

Wisconsin was awarded a Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) grant starting in January 2013 and expiring in 2016. In July of 2016, Wisconsin was awarded a “no-cost extension” to continue spending grant funds and completing projects until December 31, 2017. The full amount awarded to Wisconsin was $34 million.

The intent of the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant was to improve early learning and development programs for young children by supporting States’ efforts to:

  1. Increase the number and percentage of low-income and disadvantaged children in each age group of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers who are enrolled in high-quality early learning programs
  2. Design and implement an integrated system of high-quality early learning programs and services
  3. Ensure that any use of assessments conforms with the recommendations of the National Research Council’s reports on early childhood.

RTT-ELC was a cross-department grant that used the talent, experience, and vision of three state departments: Children and Families (designated as the lead agency), Public Instruction, and Health Services. Staff from each of these three state agencies worked together on many of the RTT-ELC activities and projects.

2014 Performance Report

Project 1: Enhancement of Early Learning Systems

Create a Network of Public Private Partnerships

The goal of this project was to create a network of public private partnerships to increase engagement and investment in the importance of quality early childhood in local communities. 

The CETE Network is comprised of two components: local coalitions and a state hub. The state hub produces resources and tools designed to help the local coalitions expand their efforts in engaging their communities around the importance of quality early childhood programs.


The CETE Network is a Wisconsin-based network of early childhood coalitions working together to create partnerships and investments in their communities to improve the quality of early childhood programs.


There is a coordinated system by which every community will have successful public private partnerships to ensure that all young children are safe, healthy, and ready to learn.

Coordinating with Tribal Nations

Tribal outreach and liaison services from the grant will coordinate tribal professional development processes with the statewide effort, provide training that is consistent with other statewide programs and help improve communications between early childhood professionals and trainers.

Project 2: YoungStar Training and Technical Assistance to Expand Screening

There were two main goals of Project 2:

  • To ensure that children receive high-quality screening for development delays
  • To support quality child care practices for children with disabilities and special needs

In order to ensure that children are receiving high-quality screening, Project 2 provided funding so that child care providers could receive additional onsite support and technical assistance on the administration of the Ages and Stages Questionnaire or ASQ.

Through December 2016, 244 child care programs were provided with a combined 400 hours of onsite technical assistance in support of the Ages and Stages Questionnaire.

In order to support quality child care practices for children with disabilities and special needs a number of resources and project were created.

A cross-agency, cross-sector team created an Early Childhood Inclusion Addition to the YoungStar website in order to assist families and providers in connecting with available resources.

The Department of Children and Families has also worked with statewide agencies and organizations to offer two Early Childhood Inclusion Institutes for training and technical assistance for providers to increase support for inclusive child care settings. The Institutes provided training and technical assistance for providers throughout the state with an opportunity for networking, professional development, and information on up-to-date research to ensure best practices are being utilized.

Finally, in order to support quality care practices for children with special needs, the YoungStar team worked to increase coordination between the Birth to 3 Program, Early Childhood Special Education, and the Regional Centers for Children with Special Health Care Needs. In 2016, the Department of Children and Families collaborated with representatives from the Departments of Health Services and Public Instruction to create a joint inclusion agreement to ensure agencies are working together while supporting children with differing abilities and needs.

Project 3: YoungStar and 4K Alignment

The goals of Project Three were to help improve alignment between private child care and public 4K, and to bring more 4K providers into YoungStar.

Four-Year-Old Kindergarten (4K) is an important program that helps lead to the success of our young learners. It is managed through the Department of Public Instruction and is closely tied to public school districts. Four-year-old children in Wisconsin have been attending public school for over 150 years, and currently, 97% of children in Wisconsin live in a district that offers 4K.

An important approach to providing early childhood education is the growing practice of blending public and private learning programs and resources. This approach is commonly referred to as Four-Year Old Kindergarten Community Approaches (4KCA). In 4KCA, child care providers and school districts work together to offer programs to four-year-old children in kindergarten. These community-wide efforts use resources more efficiently and offer many benefits to children, families, schools, and communities.

RTT-ELC funding has supported the Department of Children and Families and the Department of Public Instruction in creating a stronger connection to ensure that 4-year-old children are receiving high-quality education and care within the state. YoungStar does not rate 4K programs, but can support the wraparound care offered at community collaborations. YoungStar supports and provides resources for child care programs to ensure that children in participating programs are ready for 4K. Members of the YoungStar team created a comparison guide between YoungStar and 4K to ensure continued success and collaboration.

Project 4: Increasing the Participation of High-Needs Families in Highly Rated YoungStar Programs

The goal of Project 4 was to increase the participation of high-needs families in highly rated YoungStar programs. Getting Wisconsin's most vulnerable kids into high-quality child care programs will help ensure that all Wisconsin’s children have quality early childhood experiences and are ready to start school

Project 4 provided funds for a YoungStar media campaign. The YoungStar media campaign consisted of the creation of educational videos, paid advertising, website revision, and grassroots outreach.

As a result of the media campaign, over 6,000 new users visited the YoungStar website during the campaign, nearly doubling the normal traffic; 82.8% of users who came to the website were from the ads and were new to the website; over 40 hours of YoungStar advertisements were watched on YouTube; knowledge and positive responses to YoungStar are strong among target audience; collateral materials continue to be used and re-ordered by community partners; and the YoungStar and Child Care Finder websites continue to garner attention averaging nearly 7,000 and 8,000 unique visitors per month, respectively.

Project 5: Scholarships, Training, and Bonuses

Project 5 supported a variety of scholarships, training, and bonus opportunities for child care providers in Wisconsin. This included the Educational Opportunities Grant, Challenge Awards, T.E.A.C.H. Scholarships, and accreditation grants.

RTT-ELC provided funding to eight Wisconsin institutions of higher education to provide no-cost credit-based credentials to staff at 2 and 3 Star rated child care programs. The grant requires the Registry Credentials: Infant and Toddler Development, Preschool, Family Child Care, and Afterschool and Youth Development be offered at times and community locations that allow full-time working providers the flexibility to attend. Each student was offered supports through individual schools, as well as, individualized professional development counseling.

Through 2016, 1136 students participated in this grant. Students from all YoungStar regions participated in courses with 57% of students ranging from 25 to 44 years in age. Coursework was offered in a variety of urban, rural, tribal, and community settings. Through 2016, 398 verified Credentials were earned by providers supported by the Educational Opportunities Grant.

To celebrate successful quality improvement efforts in programs that increased their YoungStar rating, the Department of Children and Families, supported by the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, issued Challenge Awards in a tiered fashion based on star rating and program size. The Department of Children and Families utilized funds from the RTTT-ELC to provide awards for eligible providers who earned a higher Star rating four times during the grant, with 1,115 providers earning Challenge Awards.

Registry coupons were created with Race to the Top-ELC funds in order to remove the application/renewal fees for YoungStar participating providers to receive a Registry Career Level. In order to move from a 2 Star rating to a 3 Star rating, a child care provider is required to receive a Registry Career Level. The coupons were available for staff working at programs who were participating in YoungStar, and had earned a 2 or 3 Star rating. In total, 25,355 Registry coupons were funded by Race to the Top.

RTT-ELC funds were provided to avoid a waitlist for T.E.A.C.H. scholarships. T.E.A.C.H. scholarships are higher education scholarships offered to professionals who work in regulated early childhood and school-age care settings. Between October 2014 and September 2015, 589 scholarship contracts were awarded through RTTT funding to recipients at 2 or 3 Star rated providers.

The Department of Children and Families contracted with the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association and the Wisconsin Family Child Care Association to provide scholarships for YoungStar participating providers that chose to explore options for national accreditation. The funds provided for additional technical consulting time, as well as, covered partial costs of the accreditation process. In total, 33 YoungStar participating child care providers and programs were awarded accreditation scholarships. Learn more information about YoungStar accreditation policies.

Project 6: YoungStar Validation Study

The Wisconsin Early Child Care Study was conducted by a team led by Dr. Katherine Magnuson, Associate Professional of Social Work and the Associate Director for Research and Training at the Institute for Poverty Research at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The validation study included approximately 800 children between the ages of 3 and 5, along with their caregivers and teachers. The children, families, and caregivers were recruited from 160 family and group providers.

The validation study looked at two specific questions:

  1. Do lower-rated programs have lower levels of observed quality than higher-rated programs?
  2. Do children in higher rated programs gain more in school readiness than similar children in lower rated programs?

Executive Summary of Wisconsin Early Child Care Study

Validation of the QRIS YoungStar Rating Scale Report 1

Validation of the QRIS YoungStar Rating Scale Report 2

Project 7: Training on Wisconsin Model Early Learning Standards

Project Seven expanded Wisconsin Model Early Learning Standards training and ensure that the child care workforce, school districts, and other early care and education providers are able to put the training content into everyday practice.

Project Seven provided the following support to the Wisconsin Model Early Learning Standards:

  • Additional trainer capacity to target high-need areas, including critical on-site support
  • Improved alignment between the Wisconsin Model Early Learning Standards and Common Core State Standards to ensure the expectations for kindergarten school readiness match.
  • Creation of a consistent literacy instruction module to help provide a common, evidence-based training on early literacy instruction. 
  • Expanded training around social and emotional development using the Pyramid Model targeted to high-need areas.
  • Improved Identification and retention of high-quality trainers through a stipend and mentor program
Project 8: Family Engagement

Project Eight was dedicated to increasing families' engagement in their children's early care and education. Parents and families play the most vital role in their children's success. Project 8 supported family engagement in a number of ways

This included an enhanced indicator in YoungStar’s evaluation criteria as two optional points. In 2017, programs that are rated 3 Star will be required to earn one point and will have the option of earning the second available point. Programs that are rated 4 and 5 Star will be required to earn both points. Because of the significant changes made to the family engagement indicator, an additional two to four hours of on-site technical consultation specifically focusing on family engagement practices were made available to YoungStar participating child care providers. A comprehensive training on the importance of family engagement was also developed in close collaborating with the University of Wisconsin Extension- Milwaukee and is being offered to child care providers

In addition to supporting providers to better engage families, RTT-ELC is also supported families and parents. Funds from RTT-ELC created a sustainable system of statewide Parent Cafe's. During a Parent Café, parents explore the Strengthening Families Protective Factors in small group settings through a peer-to-peer learning process and individual self-reflections.

Project 9: Building a Strong Professional Development Framework

The main goal of Project Nine was to promote the successful professional development of early childhood providers by better aligning efforts in state early childhood professional development and technical assistance. This was being done by:

  • Developing a common, statewide early learning workforce knowledge and competency framework
  • Documenting and reflecting developments and changes to the framework based on professional development and higher education scans
  • Supporting the alignment and coordination of cross-department efforts and funding with special attention on programs and services for children and families with high needs
  • Developing a statewide technical assistance network to promote alignment, resource sharing, and promising practices within the framework of trainers, coaching, mentoring, and on-site follow-up
  • Supporting the Professional Development Initiative - a cross-sector structure for promoting alignment
  • Coordinating alignment of several professional development modules related to inclusion of children with disabilities, dual language learners, culturally responsive practices, and homelessness
  • Developing new training modules including early learning standards, Pyramid Model, screening and assessment, inclusive practices for children with disabilities, homelessness, and dual language learners
Project 10: Enabling Data-Driven Decisions

As part of the RTT-ELC, Wisconsin committed to creating an Early Childhood Integrated Data System or ECIDS. The goal is that the ECIDS project will result in better outcomes for Wisconsin children, families, and communities by providing DCF, DPI and DHS internal researchers, content specialists, and analysts with cross-departmental information to guide decisions about investing resources in effective, sustainable strategies while maintaining privacy, confidentiality, and departmental accountability.

The ECIDS will make the process of sharing data between our agencies easier, faster, and more reliable, will enable analysts to use de-identified data to study characteristics and outcomes of groups of participants, and strictly control access to data through agency-assigned roles, and by requiring data use agreements. The ECIDS will not pool agencies' data together in a centralized data warehouse, abridge agencies' and programs' ownership of their data or data managers' data security responsibilities, provide data on individuals needed for day-to-day operations or case management, or enable interested individuals to view and use agencies' data at will.

As part of a larger national movement around integrating early childhood data, Wisconsin is beginning work on creating a persisted and automated distinct count of children and families’ being served by the State’s many early childhood programs. For more information about how this data will support children and families watch The Value of Having a Distinct Count.

In addition to the cross-agency work around the ECIDS, there is also agency-specific work being completed. With RTTT-ELC funding, DCF is building LIFT (Longitudinal Information on Family Touchpoints) and DHS is building the Customer Hub to connect records across different data collections and link to the ECIDS.