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How does Obama want to reshape preschools? Education Department shows its hand.

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States seeking to enter need to apply by mid-October, and a “handful” of winners will be announced in December. The guidelines of the competition recognize the variation in terms of what states have in place now, so much of the scoring will be based on states’ plans to improve early-childhood education, rather than their track record.

“The overarching goal of this challenge is to make sure that many, many more children enter kindergarten ready to succeed,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a conference call.

How the money can be used

None of the money will go toward expanding early-childhood learning slots or adding preschoolers to the rosters; rather, it will be used to help set up the systems, standards, and staffing necessary for high-quality programs.

“How can our children compete for the jobs of tomorrow when they’re already behind by the time they’ve started kindergarten?” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, on the same conference call. HHS, which distributes much of the federal money for childhood and early-learning programs, is a partner in the grant program. And the standards, she says, will emphasize behavioral, social, and physical health as well as academics.

When the draft criteria were first announced last month, some people worried that the administration was trying to move high-stakes testing – so controversial in K-12 classrooms – down to preschoolers.

The guidelines still don’t say exactly how assessments and data can be used when it comes to rewarding or punishing teachers. But Secretary Duncan and others in the administration emphasized that the assessments they’re talking about are not standardized tests, but are more observations necessary to evaluate programs and students and to improve instruction.

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