Three Lessons on Early Childhood Systems From Smart Start

downloadLast week I had the pleasure of attending the annual Smart Start conference in Greensboro, N.C.  The conference also draws a spectrum of early childhood policy, research, practitioners and advocates from around the nation, in addition to a good chunk of North Carolina’s early childhood community.

After spending the better part of a week immersed in the latest thinking about how best to improve the lives of young children, I came away with these three lessons:

1.  High-Quality Early Childhood Programs Improve Health Outcomes, Too. 

We’ve long known that comprehensive early childhood programs, such as the Abecedarian program in  North Carolina, have had dramatic impacts on K-12 grade retention, special education rates, and future income.  Now new research on the Abecedarian conducted by James Heckman and the Frank Porter Graham institute yields some surprising findings.  Children who participated in the Abecedarian program had significantly improved health outcomes in adulthood, including heart disease, hypertension, and a cluster of symptoms known as “metabolic syndrome”, which is associated with a greater risk of heart disease and diabetes.

2.  Quality Rating Systems Are Getting Smarter

As we learn more about what makes an effective early education site, the QRIS (quality rating and improvement systems) which rate providers and incentivize them  to improve are becoming more sophisticated.  New QRIS systems are paying more attention to issues of external validity, such as the relationship between the ratings that providers receive and future outcomes for kids.  They are also more closely evaluating the mix of components which comprise a rating, such as ECERS scores, CLASS assessments, teacher qualifications, and other elements.

The Office of Child Care (OCC) has a number of tools to help states better understand the costs and benefits associated with high quality child care (I am helping to develop one of these, the Provider Cost of Quality Calculator (PCQC), along with Anne Mitchell and APA Consulting).

3.  Pay For Success Is Catching On – Slowly

The buzz about innovative financing methods such as Pay For Success (also known as Social Impact Bonds) is increasing.  My observation is that these approaches tend to be less partisan than other strategies to increase investment in early childhood.  For example, in South Carolina, a PFS centered on Nurse Family Partnership emerged under a conservative governor, Nikki Haley.  PFS seem particularly promising with defined program models, well-defined measurable outcomes, and streamlined financing structures in which a single entity realizes benefits and repays investors.

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