Urban Institute
Research Product Manager
Urban Institute
Project Associate

Early results in Chicago’s PFS project indicate initial success

Last week, the Chicago Child-Parent Center Program became the third pay for success (PFS) project in the United States to release interim results, and the initial outcomes are promising. Among 325 children in the first cohort of preschoolers served, 59 percent were considered ready for kindergarten. This is the first of four yearly evaluations measuring kindergarten readiness for program graduates. The outcome triggered a $500,000 success payment to investors—$2,900 for each child deemed ready for school—and provides preliminary evidence that the preschool program is improving outcomes for students.

The project scales the Child-Parent Center Model (CPC), a half- or full-day preschool model that emphasizes aligned education and services in high-needs communities. The project will serve 2,618 four-year-old children living in Chicago neighborhoods with the highest poverty rates over the course of four years. The CPC’s unusually rich evidence base, which includes the Chicago Longitudinal Study and a 2011 evaluation, indicates it has been successful at achieving several positive outcomes. This project is supported by $16.9 million in funding from the Goldman Sachs Social Impact Fund, Northern Trust, and the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation.

Kindergarten readiness is one of three outcomes measured for repayment in the project, in addition to third-grade literacy and special education avoidance. “Kindergarten readiness” is defined as scoring at or above the 50th percentile on measures of at least five of the following six developmental domains: literacy, language, mathematics, cognitive development, socio-emotional well-being, and physical health. These domains are assessed using Teaching Strategies (TS) GOLD scores from the spring before the children enter kindergarten. TS GOLD™ is a teacher-reported measure of young children’s skills routinely collected by the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and available through administrative sources.

The implications of interim outcomes

The Chicago PFS project is one of several to include interim success payments, meaning outcomes are measured at multiple junctures and funders may be repaid incrementally throughout the life of the project. This offers an incentive to funders, decreases appropriations risks, and encourages more frequent evaluation of outcomes that can allow project partners to track progress and implement any needed course corrections. In this case, funders will receive $500,000 in success payments, amounting to 1.5 percent of the maximum $34 million in success payments that could be made throughout the project.

SRI International, the independent evaluator for this project, is measuring the project’s outcomes for kindergarten readiness and third-grade literacy using a descriptive study, which compares outcomes relative to national norms instead of a comparison group. Interim results for third-grade literacy will be released for each cohort starting in 2019. This approach reduces some of the logistical and ethical challenges of sorting children into control and treatment groups, but it also has limitations, as the project’s evaluators acknowledge. Chief among them: It does not allow stakeholders to know whether the program itself caused the outcomes or if they would have occurred anyway.

For special education outcomes, SRI is using a quasi-experimental design with a comparison group of children with similar demographic characteristics who did not attend any type of preschool in CPS. Interim results for special education outcomes will be measured for each cohort starting in June 2016, and ending when the last cohort completes sixth grade. The evaluators note that given the study is not an experimental design, they cannot make causal attributions between CPC preschool and kindergarten readiness.

Chicago is the third PFS project to release any outcome results. In July 2015, early results from the first PFS project in the United States, a juvenile recidivism reduction program at Rikers Island in New York City, showed the program did not demonstrate a sufficiently positive effect to warrant the continuation of the intervention. As a result, the stakeholders exercised a clause in the contract and ended the program early.

Encouraging preliminary results followed in October 2015 from a PFS project in Salt Lake County, UT that also scales a preschool program. Although these results encouraged a discussion on evaluation methodologies, they also demonstrated how intermediate success payments could be triggered.

The year 2 report for the Chicago project will include kindergarten readiness outcomes for children participating in the second cohort, as well as data examining special education placement rates in kindergarten for the first cohort. These interim results are critical to understanding what works (and what doesn’t), informing future government decisions about which interventions to scale and where in order to do the most good for the communities they serve.

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Scholars are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research. Photo via Shutterstock.