Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s annual conference where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.
How can communities know the progress they’re making – or areas to grow – in becoming a true center for early learning? In Part Two of our conversation, Cailin O’Connor, Senior Associate at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, explains the metrics, inputs and outputs of the Digital Progress Rating Tool and the early childhood system performance assessment toolkit.
Chris Riback: Cailin, welcome back to the studio and thank you. Thank you for spending more time with us to talk about the progress rating tool.
Cailin O’Connor: Thanks.
Chris Riback: Thinking about the children and thinking about outcomes, what are the outcomes for children who live in an early learning community?
Cailin O’Connor: There’s a lot of work going on about how to define that and how to measure it. So at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, we’ve been working with some of our communities to define how we want to talk about those outcomes. Everyone’s measuring different things or some of the same things and some different. So what we’ve worked with a group of our community leaders to organize those outcomes into three main areas around health learning and safety and being in a nurturing community.
Cailin O’Connor: So within those areas then we can look at indicators that communities can use that are available at the population level because we really want to look, when we’re talking about the whole early learning community, we don’t just want to know how the participants in one particular program are doing. We want to know how the community’s doing, but that data sort of public health level data is harder to find for the questions that we have.
Chris Riback: Where do you get those indicators? Where do you get the data?
Cailin O’Connor: So the data can come from a lot of different systems, like mostly public health, but also the education system if they’re kindergarten readiness measures that are being used across the system. And the communities that we worked with on those outcomes and indicators actually said this is complicated, it’s different in every community, but what we want to look at more is what we are doing as a system and how we can improve so that we can affect those outcomes.
Cailin O’Connor: So we kind of took a step back from the population level outcomes and said, what is the system doing that contributes to those outcomes. So that system leaders can then tweak what they’re doing to get even better and to then see those outcomes change down the road.
Cailin O’Connor: The fundamental question is why would children be better off in a community that has a well-functioning early childhood system than in one that just has good programs?
Chris Riback: And I assume that that is exactly why you have said that a well-functioning system is far more effective than simply having good programs.
Cailin O’Connor: Right. So when you’re looking across the community at the full system, you can answer questions and solve problems that you just can’t from an individual program. No matter how good an early care and education center is, they’re serving the families that walk through the door. They can serve them wonderfully, but that doesn’t answer questions about are we serving everyone in the community? That’s not in the purview of an individual program. But when you look at the system level, you can solve that.
Cailin O’Connor: So we came with four areas-
Chris Riback: Yes, tell me about the toolkit.
Cailin O’Connor: We created an early childhood system performance assessment toolkit, which describes ways that the early childhood system can improve outcomes for the community. So we did that by saying when you have a good system, you are better coordinating between the different services in this community. You’re improving the reach of services. Making sure everyone’s getting what they need. You are improving the commitment of the community to early childhood and you’re also improving equity because you’re looking at who’s being served, building parent leadership across the whole system, all of that.
Chris Riback: Making sure there is not only access but then high quality capabilities once you’ve got the access.
Cailin O’Connor: Exactly.
Chris Riback: The concept of equity, just one of the central concepts right now in early childhood learning.
Cailin O’Connor: Absolutely. And I think-
Chris Riback: Not just right now, I should say, I mean it’s been forever, but even heightened focus on it.
Cailin O’Connor: Right. A lot of our communities that have been doing really good work on early childhood unfortunately have not been reaching everyone with that good work. So we know that certain neighborhoods are less likely to have access to high quality care. That’s the kind of thing you can solve at a system level that individual programs just can’t.
Chris Riback: Give me a specific example. First Five California, tell me about that.
Cailin O’Connor: Every County in California has an organization called the First Five which is funded by a tax on tobacco products and that entity is responsible. They have a board that’s connected to their county commission and they are responsible for funding and coordinating services to the first five years of life. And we work with several of those First Five entities in California counties to think about how their entire system can function better. Including the programs they fund directly, but also the programs that they can pull together and say, let’s all make sure that we know each other and we’re making referrals to each other and we’re helping families access services.
Cailin O’Connor: We’re coordinating our data so that the family doesn’t have to fill out the same information at every service provider they interact with. Other things that just make it more seamless of a system for families. So in some places there’s a universal preschool application. You fill that out and it goes to the preschools that have openings are the ones that you choose and you don’t have to submit this information to five different programs that you’re hoping your child will get into.
Chris Riback: There are simple ways to simplify.
Cailin O’Connor: Right. And when folks are working together, it usually takes someone like a First Five or in Florida there’s children’s services councils. There are different entities that do this, and some places it might be the United Way and some places it might even be like the mayor’s office that has a real focus on early childhood. But you need someone who is the hub, who’s bringing everyone else together to make those connections and put in place systems across all those providers
Chris Riback: To close out, Cailin, when you’re thinking about a hub and you’re thinking about the progress rating tool and you’re thinking about the toolkit, you’re thinking about the ways to bring together the different capabilities within a community to really create an early learning community. What can the outcomes for kids look like?
Cailin O’Connor: We want to see pregnant people getting the support they need so that children are born healthy and healthy weight and on time. We want to see that then are connected to a medical home and are getting the services that they need. Getting screened for any developmental concerns and getting connected to early intervention if they need it. We want to see families where they’re getting all the support they need and if they need help, they know where to get it and are comfortable asking for help.
Cailin O’Connor: We want strong social networks so that people can help each other out and smooth over the bumps that all families experience-
Chris Riback: We all experience them-
Cailin O’Connor: … When they have young children. And we also want children to have those high quality early learning experiences, whether that is in a formal program or because they go to playgroup and library story hour and have a parent who has all what they need it to provide that stimulation at home.
Chris Riback: That’s terrific. Cailin, thank you. Thank you for the work that you’ve done in the organization and congratulations on the Progress Rating Tool going digital.