Urban Institute
Research Associate
Urban Institute
Policy Program Manager

Lessons learned from a community of practice on early childhood education and pay for success

November 28, 2018 - 4:41pm

In December 2016, the Department of Education awarded eight grants to state and local governments and a charter school to conduct Early Childhood Education (ECE) Pay for Success (PFS) feasibility studies. Each grantee sought to use a PFS structure to expand, enhance, or develop their ECE program. With support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Urban Institute built a community of practice for these eight grantees. Over a year and a half, the Urban Institute held two in-person workshops, four web meetings, and phone calls focused on data, evaluation, preschool outcomes and measures, collaboration with stakeholders, and project sustainability. Here are four key lessons learned:

1. Tailored communication facilitates collaboration among different stakeholders. 

The PFS ECE project brought together a wide range of stakeholders, including service providers, early childhood agency staff, PFS intermediaries, researchers, school districts, and businesses. Early on, very few people were well-versed in PFS, ECE, and evaluation; some only had experience in one of these three areas. Therefore, grantees spent some time getting everyone up to speed on all topic areas and making sure they could explain these topic areas clearly. They then focused on sharing digestible messages to key partners.

PFS can be difficult to explain clearly to new audiences; oftentimes, people understand the basic concept but not the specifics and nuances of how it works. The use of diagrams and concrete examples explaining the myths and realities of PFS allowed grantees to share this message to their prospective partners and investors more effectively.  Explaining the purpose and structure of not just PFS, but also ECE and evaluation, helped garner partner buy-in. Intermediaries and other PFS partners played a crucial role in helping grantees strategize on communication and translate key messages, such as the value of PFS in supporting programs that work.

2. Preschool is a difficult match for a traditional Pay for Success project.

Grantees quickly found that making the case for a traditional PFS project in ECE can be challenging for two key reasons. First, while evidence for the effectiveness of ECE is building, there are still not many large-scale rigorous studies demonstrating the effect of Public Pre-K on key outcomes and its value in saving costs [1]. The ECE field is still developing measures to capture impact, especially around harder-to-measure factors like social-emotional development.

Second, unlike some programs that can tie costs to benefits in the short-term (like interventions that reduce recidivism), ECE is more complex. Many of the benefits of ECE are long-term, and some do not even fall within the education sector (e.g. criminal justice, employment). Getting the school districts to fund this work proved challenging because of up-front capital needed for long-term outcomes: for example, 3rd grade reading is paid back in 5-6 years. While PFS can help address the wrong pockets problem, (“a situation where the entity that bears the cost of implementing a practice…does not receive a commensurate benefit,”[2]), the long-term nature of ECE benefits and the limited amount of evidence complicates the creation of a PFS project.

3. The community of practice facilitated peer learning across diverse grantees.

The PFS ECE feasibility grantees included state, local, and school-level agencies; they represented rural, urban, and suburban communities; and they were at different stages in developing or expanding their specific ECE programs. Despite these differences, grantees supported each other and developed a community of practice built on honesty and reciprocity. At in-person workshops, many grantees appreciated sharing their challenges with others and hearing that they “weren’t alone” in terms of navigating this process. They shared their struggles navigating data challenges, including developing data-sharing agreements and data requests, and building new relationships with data providers. Grantees also discussed the best ways to convene and communicate with a variety of stakeholders. For example, after an in-person meeting, one grantee shifted from a lengthy presentation to a concise one-page handout with bullet points, to better match the style of business communications their funders typically use.

4. The PFS Feasibility project helped grantees better understand their program model, data, and impact.

During the feasibility study, grantees refined key details of their program models and dug deeper into their data. Specifically, grantees refined logic models, examined processes, and requested and analyzed administrative data on needs and current services. These actions helped grantees see the reach of their programs, their influence on children, and their capacity to expand or enhance their programs. Grantees also saw how their program is viewed from the outside and how its value should be framed. Finally, grantees learned how to package their value proposition, including showcasing specific strategies to potential funders, whether they planned to move forward with PFS or instead pursue a more traditional funding model. At least one grantee used their data to garner support for a referendum to get additional ECE seats in their county.

After the feasibility study, grantees had different next steps, but all benefitted from the feasibility process and a network for support and peer learning.

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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.

[2] Roman, John. 2015. Solving the Wrong Pockets Problem How Pay for Success Promotes Investment in Evidence-Based Best Practices. Urban Institute.