Stanford Social Innovation Review : Informing and inspiring leaders of social change



Seizing the Moment on Early Childhood Care and Education

Three ways to improve early childhood systems and improve equity.

Early childhood education is hot right now. In a recent US poll, 84 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans agreed that we should do more to improve early childhood education, and Obama, in his State of the Union Address, called for Congress to support high-quality pre-school, noting that 30 states have already started. In New York City, my home, it was the big topic of the mayoral election and has continued to dominate the press since.

It’s about time! The United States lags behind the world in this area in relative investment and outcomes. The current policy framework seems mired in a “stay-at-home mom” worldview, yet today 70 percent of American children grow up in families without a full-time stay-at-home caregiver. In this recent damning article, journalist Johnathan Cohn shone a spotlight on the shocking results of this lack of focus, including poor educational outcomes, inequality, and, in some tragic cases, loss of life.

Investing in high-quality early care and education is something international economists consider a “no-brainer.” Nobel Laureate James Heckman notes: “Investment in early education for disadvantaged children from birth to age five helps reduce the achievement gap, reduce the need for special education, increase the likelihood of healthier lifestyles, lower the crime rate, and reduce overall social costs. In fact, every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood education produces a 7 to 10 percent per annum return on investment.” What’s not to like?

So how can local and national US policymakers seize the moment and get it right? While funding will be important, our work with early childhood systems and social innovators around the world suggests a few surprising things that could make all the difference:

1. Make it work for the most vulnerable.

Imagine a single parent, Sonia, has poor English and literacy skills. She has been on welfare for seven years and is excited to now be moving into employment. She has three kids under the age of five, one with delayed speech and potential autism—so she needs childcare.

As she is moving off welfare, Sonia will get some help navigating the process, but it will still be confusing and tedious (involving multiple, overlapping forms to complete, documents she may not have, and long waits for verification, delaying her employment). Without clear information about quality differences, Sonia may well choose care with a friend or neighbor, who may be loving but have little training in how to boost her kids’ literacy, numeracy, and chances of success, and the kids may end up watching lots of TV. This care could be provided in a small room, with no outdoor space, and with other family members or friends coming and going, some of who may have a criminal background. Her autistic child will likely miss out on crucial early assessment and support. When her children enter kindergarten, there will no systems to encourage communication between her neighbor and their school about the needs of the children.

We should design systems for Sonia, not the broader middle of the target population. We should aim for a system in which even those with poor language skills can easily navigate and access quality care. This means either raising quality to uniformly high standards, or providing simple tools to enable parents to compare and understand differences in quality (for example, the star rating systems now used in more than 20 states, including New Mexico, Ohio, South Carolina, Denver, Tennessee, and New York). Governments should also provide specialist assessment, good nutrition, parent support, and dual-language accommodations. It also means thinking about funding structures such as sliding fee structures that cross-subsidize the most vulnerable (a feature of many systems including those in Australia, Canada, and the UK).

With such a system everyone wins. Society at large benefits, since the greatest economic returns (including higher graduation rates and lower crime) come from investing in care for the most vulnerable children in our society. Other parents using the system also benefit, since they get a simpler, more effective system.

I’ve seen this approach pioneered in areas beyond early childhood by social innovators like Community Solutions. By focusing hundreds of organizations around the country on the needs of the most vulnerable, they are on track to house 100,000 chronically homeless Americans, creating more than a billion dollars in economic benefits, freeing up hospital beds, and creating systems that are more coordinated and better for everyone to navigate. This kind of thinking is needed in early childhood policy.

2. Put one cross-agency team seriously on the hook.

Much of today’s mess—overlapping funding sources, conflicting legal requirements, systems that don’t communicate—stems from distributed accountability and no clear strategy. Those achieving good early childhood outcomes recognize four things. First, early care and education is a cross-agency issue, touching on health, mental health, education, and children’s and human services. Second, childcare and education go hand in hand; they are not separate functions. Third, the first three years of life are critical determinants of long-term success—this is not just about four year olds. And last, but not least: Someone needs to be on the hook for delivery.

Two approaches can address these considerations. Establish a department of early childhood (a common approach in states around Australia, France, and the UK) that takes responsibility for the coordination of care from six weeks and five years. Or less disruptively, establish a cross-functional, cross-age working group with the same responsibility that reports to the top (President, Governor, or Mayor). Maryland, for example, credits its early childhood working group and long-term strategic plan as the dominant factor in its impressive turnaround. Today 82 percent of children arrive kindergarten-ready, up from 49 percent in 2002. Similar approaches have worked well in Ohio, Denver, Texas, and other states.

3. Get quality right before boosting capacity.

Quality is absolutely critical. While high-quality early care has great payoffs, low-quality care can be detrimental to children. Quality is more than providing a healthy, safe environment; it involves setting standards for care and education around curriculum, equipment, food, qualifications, and training.

Many consider the US military childcare system a model for the nation. With a 96 percent compliance rate with national quality standards (compared with 9 percent of civilian centers), it provides high-quality care to more than 200,000 children every day. Things were not always so rosy—in 1990, military officials described the system as a “disaster,” plagued by huge waitlists, poor outcomes, and health and safety issues, with real impact on the productivity and retention of servicemen and servicewomen. The system credits its turnaround on quality to: 1) setting clear standards to which everyone is accountable, 2) having a clear system of accreditation (the military uses the National Association for the Education of Young Children standards), and 3) addressing compensation and training issues, in particular resetting compensation and linking it more closely to quality. For example, in 1988 wages for military childcare workers were almost half those of commissary shelf stockers and lower than those at Burger King; this lead to annual staff turnover in some centers of up to 300 percent. To address these disparities, the system aligned childcare wages with those of public teachers with the same qualifications; it also introduced a tiered system so that salaries increase as training hurdles are met. France, Sweden, Germany, and an increasing number of US states are applying similar approaches to good effect.

While we have seen similar efforts to boost quality all over the country (New York City’s EarlyLearn initiative is one example), they are unevenly applied (even within NYC) and in almost every state in the country there are numerous organizations exempt from these standards.

By designing a system that works for the most vulnerable, making one group clearly accountable, and making sure that all subsidized care and education is high-quality, states and cities around the United States will start to see major benefits—in improved equity, better educational outcomes, and lower crime. The payoff is proven, now it’s time to make it happen.

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  • Rachael Barrett's avatar

    BY Rachael Barrett

    ON May 1, 2014 08:21 AM

    A few points to consider.

    First, recent testimony by Russ Whitehurst from this past February.—He rightly points out that the economic dividends often cited are based on some gold-standard studies many years ago. Those results were specific to those projects and should not be used in today’s context.

    Second, deBlasio’s campaign starts at preK. Again, a revolutionary approach to early childhood education would look at and fund the 18 mos to 3 year olds—a time in the child’s life when their brain is at its most elastic and therefore the combination of environment and experiences must be of the best quality and intentional to ensure that the foundation is solid for continued learning.

    Third, Quality. No doubt important, yet we have not landed on what that means or looks like. When we track closely the literature, we can acknowledge the one finding that keeps popping up; get great teachers, support them, pay them well and provide ongoing supervision and professional development. Otherwise, we are getting caught up in chasing trends and sometimes pseudo-science or bad science or no science in developing different curriculum and methods reflective of one’s biases; and sometimes the one with the best resources wins; while other fine ideas fail to get traction, notoriety and success.

    Fourth: A red herring. I am a big fan of 100K Homes. There was pretty much tacit agreement that homeless folks should get housed; not shelter, not on the streets, not institutionalized, housed. And, how do you get the most vulnerable housed? Put them into housing! But first, and that is another point of clarification, the success of 100K is that they are narrowly defining their target population and rallying folks around that; they use a tool to measure vulnerability and focus relentlessly on making sure those folks get housed. With early childhood education we are missing the how or rather we have many thousand ideas about the how.

    Also, with early childhood, how do we define most vulnerable? Is income level or race or ethnicity a marker for vulnerable? Do only the most vulnerable get a leg up? Furthermore, it is a bit disempowering and even dismissive for/of low-income parents; they may be juggling many things, but that does not imply they are unable to know what they want for their child and figure out a way to get it.

    The other essential difference with 100K is that there was a revenue model in place to find housing for the most vulnerable. There were dollars earmarked for these vulnerable populations that could be tapped into. No new revenue streams had to be created. That is another point of brilliance for the campaign. With early childhood education, no one is leaving money on the table and the funding streams are as challenging as housing for homeless with a mix of Federal, State, City, District, etc.  But, as noted above, deBlasio is not funding 18 mos. to 3 years; he has decided that UPK will ensure kindergarten ready kids; many would argue that is a bit too late. Why 4 year olds and not the 18 mos to 3 years old? It is a policy decision; was it the best one? Additionally, if we go with the idea that quality teachers make the difference, we need to start paying them and supporting their professional development—that is a new cost, unfunded.

    Another point of distinction with 100K, we can hope that the housing folks are being placed into and the supports they are getting are of high quality, but that is not the purview of the campaign. A clear goal, get the most vulnerable housed. Again, we are back at the quality question. So, the resources in a community may be such that the only affordable housing available for a homeless adult is a well-kept studio apartment in a high crime neighborhood or in an isolated location. We all agree, the goal for the early childhood education is quality; and if we assume that quality means paying teachers well or at least decently and more importantly paying for their ongoing professional development; that is a new cost.

    Finally, a real genius of the 100K campaign is their ability to get all stakeholders all in. They have engendered via a campaign method (goal focused, time oriented) a way to get folks in local communities excited and enthused. They have enabled folks to get reconnect to what drove them into the work with this population in the first place. That is incredibly important to its success. And, they had the amazing technical assistance of the brilliant campaign staff. That truly makes the difference. Reconnect people to their work and provide support and let them see their success. With early childhood educators, they often will not see their success; they may not see the kid, least likely to succeed, blossom in high school, an effect traceable to the quality instruction they received as a 2 year old.

    Fifth, quality and capacity run hand in hand. Working with some early childhood programs, they have realized that the way to sustain operations is by scale. with sufficiently sized programs, they can cover the operating costs of the programs with government resources and forego the need to rely on the variable private philanthropy; and instead allocate private philanthropy to an “ideas lab” to pilot new ideas and carry on innovations; without risking the entire enterprise. Of course, the myth is that when you get to big, quality suffers. If you build a quality program, you need to scale to sustain operations. But these little guys are unable to get the right funding mix to cover operations and no bandwidth to think through expansion. They are stuck on that horrible endless fundraising loop and quality suffers as cuts will be made to professional development programs.

    Clearly, the time is ripe for change. We do need to get settled on some questions before we jump into that murky water and try to swim to shore.

  • BY Liana Downey

    ON May 2, 2014 07:24 AM

    Hi—thanks for your thoughtful response and comments Rachael.

    A few thoughts in reply:

    On Russ’ statements to Congress:
    It’s true that Perry and Abecedarian research are considered the gold standard – both for their rigour, and because (not in spite) of the fact they were done a while ago, that’s what longitudinal research is all about! Indeed, the results keep on coming: It’.s hard to see their age as a reason for discarding their results, though it does argue for ongoing rigorous evaluation efforts. As far as I can tell Russ doesn’t present any counter arguments to the notion that great quality care is better for society than shoddy care, nor does he suggest it should not be a focus of investment.

    He doesn’t make, but probably should, the argument that closely monitored pilot programs in any organization (the well understood ‘pilot problem’) are always more effective since they get the best people and a high degree of leadership time. Even so, that isn’t a reason to accept the widely varying levels in quality children are currently subjected to, nor does it make a compelling case that there are no benefits to be had from improving the system.

    It may also be worth checking out this thoughtful rebuttal of the oft-quoted line Russ quotes that “Head Start doesn’t work”, see

    On the needs of the most vulnerable
    As a parent, I can’t relate to your suggestion that it is patronizing to suggest that parents with complex needs will find the system difficult to navigate. It IS difficult to navigate, full stop. This message comes through loud and clear from users, advocates and providers. By designing a system that takes into account, from the outset, rather than as an after-thought, the very real and complex obstacles facing parents, especially English-learner and single parents, everyone will benefit. If it was unclear, I was not advocating for a campaign-like approach , rather I was suggesting borrowing the notion of putting the needs of the most vulnerable first. A relevant comparison might be liked an iPod, simple, user-friendly, and designed by putting the user, rather than the manufacturer, at the heart of the system.

    On quality
    I agree with you, sliding scale approaches are a great way to fund growth. However there’s no upside to ramping up capacity of poor quality programs. Now is the time to create, use and refine simple systems of evaluation and transparency that reward and foster quality, and enable parents to make informed choices amongst programs. (This is especially true if you are advocating a voucher/market driven system like Russ is.)

    Cheers! Liana

  • BY Benjamin Riddle

    ON May 4, 2014 07:25 AM

    “By designing a system that works for the most vulnerable, making one group clearly accountable, and making sure that all subsidized care and education is high-quality, states and cities around the United States will start to see major benefits—in improved equity, better educational outcomes, and lower crime. The payoff is proven, now it’s time to make it happen.”

    Thanks for sharing this post, Liana!  The Institute of Child Success is taking a creative leap to approach the entirety of the early childhood system as design opportunity. In doing so, we are actively researching creative problem-solving strategies that have a proven record of creating measurable impact in complex systems.

    In partnership with design firms and a diverse team of stakeholders in South Carolina, we’re exploring how the human-centered design process can be used to improve systems that support the health and well being of children and their families. In the following blog post, I introduce design thinking and explore how it can be used as a tool to approach the transformation of the early childhood system:

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts, and would love to speak with you to learn more about your efforts.

    Looking forward,


  • BY Mike Clair

    ON May 4, 2014 11:55 AM

    Regarding the economic dividends of early childhood education, a recent study undertaken in Quebec (Canada) of that province’s $7-a-day daycare system showed that, for every dollar invested by the Provincial Government (the level of government in Canada responsible for the pre-school education system), the Government recouped $1.49 in income taxes (from newly-hired ECE teachers as well as from parents now able to enter the labour force), sales taxes from procurement by daycares and other taxes. In effect, from a governmental fiscal perspective, the program more than pays for itself.

    (Of course, the cost-benefit analysis will vary depending upon a jurisdiction’s tax system and other factors.)

    This return on investment does not include the long-term impacts of early childhood education, which includes early diagnosis of learning handicaps, increased workforce productivity, reduced reliance on welfare, decreased demands on the justice system, and other demonstrated benefits.

    A good outline of the potential benefits of Canada’s early childhood education can be found at

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