Kids and their parents paint a snowman.

Five Lessons from Two Decades of Early Education Grantmaking

Senior Program Officer Kimberly Haskins reflects on nearly 20 years of work focused on improving outcomes for Massachusetts’ youngest learners.

I’ve had the privilege to work in philanthropy for two decades, and for almost 15 of those years, I managed Barr Foundation’s early education portfolio. This has included longstanding commitments and short-term exploratory grants; some deep partnerships; patient work and impatient prodding; strategies that evolved with our learning; and steady progress.

Twenty years ago, the field was largely focused on increasing access to childcare. Over time, that focus has both shifted and expanded to include not only increasing supply, but enhancing quality in early care and education. That shift in focus has also increased attention to outcomes for children.

As we have now made our final Early Education grant commitments, I’ve been reflecting on my years guiding this portfolio, supporting partners to elevate the quality of early education in Boston and Massachusetts, with a constant focus on what works best for children. This post is my effort to distill a few key learnings – and to introduce a new, dedicated page on Barr’s website describing our goals and strategies and, importantly, featuring the work of some of our outstanding nonprofit partners.

Five Lessons Learned to Promote High-Quality Early Education

1. The early education workforce must be highly skilled and fairly compensated.

To get great results—meaning more children benefit from great early learning opportunities—early education professionals must be prepared to make the most of every exchange with a child. While the skill and experience of the educator is a primary determinant of program quality, wages in the field make it hard to attract and retain the most qualified individuals. In Massachusetts, the average salary for a community-based early education teacher is $29,020 per year. In comparison, the average salary of a kindergarten teacher in the State is $71,790 per year. This compensation gap means that many early educators are not receiving a wage that is livable, given the cost of housing and other expenses in Massachusetts. While recent data is not available, it’s estimated that the turnover rate of educators in community-based centers may be as high as 30% in communities across the State. Without a highly-skilled, appropriately compensated workforce, children are less likely to get the thoughtful interactions they need at a time when their brain architecture is most rapidly developing.

2. Curriculum matters and supports should be scaffolded to increase effective instruction and child learning.

Early educators need an evidence-based curriculum to best engage in the intentional, stimulating interaction that supports healthy child development and strong vocabularies (what experts refer to as “serve and return” interactions). Importantly, that curriculum should include a focus on language development and early literacy as well as numeracy, as early math skills not only predict later success in math, but also future reading achievement. Importantly, research indicates that programs focusing on strong literacy are more likely to consider the development of the whole child so that social and emotional development are also supported. Educators not only need high-quality curricula, they need regular professional development to use it and coaching to strengthen their instruction. Importantly, these supports cannot be “one and done,” they must be scaffolded, intentionally sequenced with periodic updates to build and sustain effective instructional practice, including the capacity to adapt to meet the needs of individual learners. We’ve seen this in action at Boston Public Schools when the district adopted “Opening the World to Learning” and “Building Blocks” curricula and became one of the most effective public early childhood programs in the country.

3. Data must be available to understand children’s development and to improve programs.

Investments in quality are important, but if we don’t invest in the data to understand the impact on children, those investments may be wasted. Data and assessment are important tools to understand how children are progressing and, if there are delays, provide an important opportunity to adjust programming and connect children and families to resources. BPS regularly contracted external assessments as it expanded Pre-K access while implementing evidence-based curricula to ensure those seats were high quality. Similarly, independent program assessment can help cities and states make decisions about technical assistance, funding, and the other supports necessary to achieve goals for children. Barr’s grant to the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley helped the City of Boston plan intentionally for high-quality Pre-K for all early learners.

4. Great teaching can happen almost anywhere, but developmentally appropriate facilities are better for children and their teachers.

Some teachers seem like miracle workers who could work their wonders in a parking lot or a cardboard box, if they had to. But quickly converted storefronts and basements are not usually ideal environments for young children or their teachers. Research by the Children’s Investment Fund found that financially strapped early childhood programs don’t have the resources for basic maintenance, let alone improvements. In the worst instances, facilities can do harm, as when poor heating and ventilation systems contribute to poor air quality, and possibly trigger asthma. Research has shown that it matters a great deal when children have high-quality places to learn. Developmentally appropriate facilities can help attract and retain top teaching talent and can contribute to improved student outcomes. Importantly, the Fund’s research prompted Massachusetts legislators to pass and continue to fund a bond bill that provides up to $45 million over five years for an Early Education and Out of School Time Capital Fund to improve program facilities across the State.

5. Policy investments are critical.

While investment in program quality is essential to improve the educational experience of the children in those programs today, longer term change to improve the experience for all children requires effective systems supported by research, policy, and public education. Organizations that can understand what families need, translate that information into sound policy, and serve as independent watch dogs to monitor implementation are critical components to any healthy system. For example, in Massachusetts, Strategies for Children has been a stalwart advocate for sound early childhood policies with appropriate funding to support effective practice. The organization was instrumental in making the case that prompted Massachusetts legislators to establish the Department of Early Education and Care, and it serves as a “critical friend” as the agency supports the healthy development of children across the Commonwealth. Similarly, as described above, the Children’s Investment Fund launched a facilities inventory project that helped make the case for public dollars for capital projects.

In addition, these examples underscore the importance of public-private partnerships. While philanthropy brings significant resources, its contributions are dwarfed by public investments in our communities. Working in partnership, each plays a critical role. Philanthropy can provide timely and flexible resources essential to seed and test new ideas, establish proof points, disseminate evidence of what works (and what doesn’t), and invest in planning to bring good ideas to scale – which, in turn, depends on the wise deployment of public dollars.

While the field has made significant improvements over the last two decades, there are some things that remain constant— like the fact that all children are born learning. However, they progress at different paces based on opportunity. It is the back and forth interaction between children and adults that support children’s healthy development. Since families are the first and most important teachers for children, parents and other caregivers must feel confident in that role. In addition, working families often rely on early education and care professionals, and that workforce works best when supported in an effective system that places children and their healthy development at the center of all decisions.

None of these examples of learning and impact would have been possible without the leadership and wisdom of the nonprofits and other funding partners that I have had the privilege to work with these many years. The Barr team is grateful for their commitment, candor, and partnership. And we are honored to feature some of their important work in this new site.

Explore our Early Education legacy page

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Kimberly Haskins

Senior Program Officer, Sector Effectiveness