Originally published in Current, Jan. 17, 2005
By Karen Everhart
The U.S. Department of Education this week expects to spell out plans to divide up $23 million in Ready to Learn grants for preschool children’s TV. The program, which funds PBS programs and outreach by stations, is now administered entirely by PBS.
A forecast of the year’s funding opportunities published by the department on its website indicates it wants to split the RTL grant program among three or four grantees for the next five-year grant period. For all of RTL’s 10-year existence the grant pool has been administered by either CPB or PBS under Department of Education contracts.
Education officers could not answer Current’s questions about the grant program — they’re prohibited from discussing criteria for RFP solicitations until after the Federal Register publishes notice of the competition, which is expected to occur Jan. 21.
The department plans to split RTL into two separate pots of money — awarding up to three $6 million to $10 million grants for programming and one grant of $4 million to $6 million for outreach. The forecast, which provides only the basics about forthcoming grant offerings, indicated the department seeks to open the program up to nonprofits outside public TV. It describes eligible applicants as “nonprofit organizations, including public telecommunications entities.”
“We considered that to be a direct threat to the viability of the Ready to Learn program, which has pretty much existed as a sole-source program from PBS,” said John Lawson, president of America’s Public Television Stations. Entrusting the RTL funds to PBS has “given a scale and efficiency to the program that would be lost if multiple grantees received money,” he said.
PBS didn’t speak out against the grant restructuring. “As surprised as we were to see the degree of change they were proposing,” said PBS Executive Vice President Wayne Godwin, “we respect their right to look at what they’re doing with Ready to Learn next year and over the next five years.”
Applications for RTL grants are to be due March 10, and the department plans to award funding contracts in May, according to the Education Department funding forecast. Applicants for two other educational technology grant programs, Ready to Teach and Star Schools, will compete for funding on the same schedule.
Proposed by CPB in 1993 to serve the national objective of making preschool kids “ready to learn” when they get to school, the grant program has backed such popular PBS Kids programs as Arthur, Clifford the Big Red Dog and Dragon Tales and new shows Misadventures of Maya and Miguel and Postcards from Buster.
The request for proposals will appear at a sensitive time for the PBS children’s service. PBS and Sesame Workshop, producer of Sesame Street and Dragon Tales, last year joined commercial partners Comcast and Hit Entertainment in launching a new digital cable service for preschoolers. The service will link public TV’s revered brand and children’s programs with a channel that eventually will carry ads. The venture is separate from the Ready to Learn program, but it’s unclear whether its commercial values will offend federal policymakers.
Do the workshops work?
Though research has established the educational effectiveness of Sesame Street and Between the Lions, performance goals set by the department in 2003 have challenged PBS to demonstrate that RTL outreach workshops—largely offered by stations—have a positive effect on school readiness. Field research conducted that same year returned disappointing results, although a 2004 study pointed to positive effects.
The first study, conducted by Princeton-based Mathematica in 2002-03, was a field evaluation of RTL workshops conducted by stations with parents and child care providers. Researchers tested the emerging literacy skills of children whose parents or caregivers participated in the workshop and compared the results with those from kids in a control group. The study found no difference between the test results for children in the treatment and control groups.
But a more recent study by WestEd, a San Francisco-based research agency, measured significant learning gains. The research, conducted last summer, was designed to track RTL’s progress toward its new performance goals. It measured the effects of directed viewing of Sesame Street or Between the Lions in three child care settings: viewing led by educators who had received RTL training, viewing by educators who used the programs but received no training, and a non-viewing control group. After completing the curriculum, children whose teachers had received the training tested better than those in other groups for “overall language competence and cognitive academic language proficiency,” according to a memo by Charlotte Brantley, PBS senior director for Ready to Learn.
PBS and Ready to Learn coordinators at stations are changing their training workshops based on these results, Brantley said.
Not “a hostile act”
In the law authorizing Ready to Learn, Congress restricted eligibility for funding to an unspecified “public telecommunications entity” that sounds a lot like PBS, though other organizations could establish the capabilities.
A grant applicant must be capable of distributing educational programs across the country, contracting with producers to create them, recouping shares of ancillary revenues derived from them, and localizing programs and materials to meet state or local standards. The grantee must spend 60 percent of each year’s RTL money to produce and distribute programs and related materials to the “widest possible audience.”
At the behest of PBS, APTS execs met last month with Nina Rees, assistant deputy secretary of education, and two staff members to urge the department not to restructure the program as outlined, Lawson said. Department officials agreed that eligibility must be limited to public TV applicants, he said, but told him they’ll proceed with separate competitions for programming and outreach.
The Education Department’s decision to restructure the program was not a “hostile act,” Lawson said. Rees and her staff expressed concerns about the direction of RTL and they have “only one shot every five years to effectively shape the program,” he said.
“I think the department feels that we at PBS and the stations have been somewhat on autopilot with Ready to Learn, and they’re pushing us to focus on reading and really produce some results,” Lawson said.
Department officials want to focus the program on basic literacy, and they question the effectiveness of station outreach workshops, according to Lawson.
It’s not surprising that the Education Department is asking PBS to demonstrate effectiveness, observers said.
“If you think about it in the context of what’s happening in education overall, No Child Left Behind is asking schools to be accountable for what children learn — and to do it at a high standard of reliability,” said Gail Porter Long, v.p. of education for Maryland Public TV. “That same idea is being carried over into other facets of education. For projects that are not designed for formal education, it can be difficult to meet them, but I wouldn’t say it’s inappropriate.”
In other grant competitions expected to be posted this week, the department plans to award as many as six grants of $1.5 million to $5 million apiece for Ready to Teach, the program that now funds PBS Teacherline as well as a Maryland PTV project for middle school students with reading difficulties, and a Twin Cities PTV teacher-training project. For Star Schools, which aids distance learning, the department will award up to seven grants within the same funding range.
Web page posted Jan. 17, 2005
Copyright 2004 by Current Publishing Committee