The Real War on Poverty

Early childhood education is the key…So why are we so bad at evaluating child care quality?

The Real War on Poverty

Early childhood education is the key…So why are we so bad at evaluating child care quality?

Philadelphia’s poverty rate is the highest among the nation’s largest cities. Its rate of deep poverty (household income less than half the poverty line) also tops the list.

A city can do three things to put a dent in poverty. It can engage the problem through social service, job training, and housing programs; it can create an environment that maximizes job growth; and it can promote high quality education opportunities.

For 50 years the city has had an office whose sole purpose was to fight poverty but it has been largely disconnected from other parts of government and certainly from the private sector. It was created in 1965 to draw War on Poverty funds from the Federal government.

In 1978 Mayor Rizzo reorganized it as the Philadelphia Allied Action Commission, and then in 1984 Mayor Goode transformed the agency into the Mayor’s Office of Community Services (MOCS).

The agency was commonly viewed as a patronage office.  Exempt from civil service requirements, it used hiring flexibility to fulfill political favors while ostensibly coordinating community activities.

MOCS was the kind of place where the friend of a friend who helped elect someone might work. It was the antipoverty version of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

In 2013, with two years left in his term, Mayor Nutter changed its name to the Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity and brought in Eva Gladstein, an accomplished public executive to run it. Shared Prosperity is the new office’s poverty-fighting plan. It focuses on work force development, access to public benefits, early childhood learning, housing security, and asset building.

To its credit the report has goals and performance metrics, but the office does not have the structural power to coordinate operations over disparate efforts inside and outside of government.

And who knows what any of this means when the new mayor takes over in nine months.

The most wide-ranging antipoverty programs are, of course, federal: Social Security, the earned income tax credit, and a host of healthcare, housing, early education, and food supplements.

When the Nobel Prize economist James Heckman analyzed the cost and benefits of tackling poverty, quality early childhood care trumped all the others.  His work draws on research from neuroscience and developmental psychology, as well as economics.

Heckman is quick to point out that what counts is quality early child care; care that is engaging, nurturing, and challenging. It is not that we cannot effectively intervene in later years; it is just that the compensatory cost is greater and the obstacles to overcome are harder. Moreover there may be limits to what can be achieved if there are too many cognitive and emotional issues to battle.

I chaired the board of Mastery Charter School when they opened their original high school in 2001. Incoming ninth graders were testing at 4th and 5th grade levels on average, with as many as 5 percent of the original group close to illiterate.

Schools like Mastery do what they can to get children to a grade appropriate level but the job is daunting. This is one reason why the best schools want reliable feeder systems from K-12; so they can build incrementally and predictably over the years.

The best principals of K-8 schools will tell you that they often start with children in kindergarten who are far behind where they need to be by age 5 or 6.

The opposite also happens. The gains from good childcare are especially strong for low-income children, but low-income children are more likely to lose those gains when they attend a poorly managed elementary school.

So how do we know if our early childcare centers have the quality we need to help reduce poverty? How do parents distinguish one center from another?

If you think that the proliferation of choices in the local elementary school environment is confusing, early childhood care will make your head spin.  There is home daycare, small nonprofits and small for profits, Head Start programs, and a variety of regional and national chains.

Some accept state subsidy and others do not. Some are properly licensed and others are part of the informal economy. Some are accredited through a variety of national organizations that issue standards, others are not.

For low and moderate-income parents the cost of childcare on the open market is out of reach and so public subsidy is critical. The costs for good childcare are similar to in-state college tuition at a public university. The available subsidy is limited.

The principal way to distinguish quality in Philadelphia is through the State of Pennsylvania’s Office of Child Development and Early Learning. Each year they rate early childhood learning centers across the Commonwealth.  The rating is voluntary. But it is a system that raises more questions than it answers.

Since 2002, the Office’s Keystone Stars program has ranked childcare centers from one star (lowest) to four stars (the highest).

They base their evaluations on the data that research tells us leads to quality outcomes, including the educational background of adults at the center, the learning environment, and center leadership.

The Stars data is a bit disconcerting. The 2014 data for Philadelphia shows the following: of the 975 centers in their database, 44 percent are unranked (431 centers); 26 percent are Star 1 (255 centers); 15 percent are Star 2  (144 centers); 7 percent are Star 3 (64 centers) and 8 percent (81 centers) are Star 4.

In 2014 close to 85% percent of the centers were either unranked or in Star 1 and 2 categories. This is a slight improvement from the 2013 data, where about 88 percent were in those categories.

Centers do not just advance over time, they also close or fall backward in terms of their ranking.  Going through the 2014 data and looking back center-by-center, I was able to trace 26 centers that closed since the prior year and 146 that lost stars. Obviously many gained stars and some new centers opened.

One function of a rating system is to give parents a guide so that can make an informed choice. The fact that there is so little data available should be alarming.

Nor is it entirely clear why so many centers do not get ranked, and we don’t know what being unranked means in terms of quality. You can go back to the database over time and follow the movement of some centers from a Star 1 or 2 that will then fall out of the ranking altogether. The database is for all Department of Public Welfare approved centers and so ranking them all should be a high priority.

But here is the real kicker. No one has ever proven that a Star 3 is really better than a Star 2 or that a Star 4 is better than a Star 3. There has never been a quality evaluation study that would help make the case and help us decide how to target subsidy and support the best operators. A real evaluation would also undoubtedly lead to refinements in the ranking system.

It costs money for a center to go from 2 to 3 and from 3 to 4 but if you are a center that receives subsidized seats you have some incentive to advance since there is a tiered subsidy system.

If you are a 2 center that does not accept subsidy, it is not clear what the incentive is, if in fact your customers are happy and the seats are filled. And it is not clear whether your outcomes are less than higher star centers.

Right now it is hard to think of a field where there is more remarkable research going on than in early childhood development, but we’re not applying what we know to assist parents and children.  Some of the problem is funding but some of the problem is also bureaucratic lethargy.

That is why looking for smart innovations will be so important during  these times of budget stress. When the Bloomberg Philanthropies held their Mayor’s challenge in 2013, the first prize went to Providence, Rhode Island for a childcare innovation.

Providence’s proposal used technology and coaches to close the so-called “word gap” between the children of middle class families and low-income children, which some have estimated to be a difference of thirty million words heard in the first three years of life.

Providence is using technology developed by the Lena Research Foundation, which helps parents and other providers measure a child’s auditory environment by using something they call a word pedometer.

It blocks out television and other noise to measure actual language interaction between the child and adults. Coaches help guide families toward vocabulary rich activities based on what they learn from the word pedometer reports.

Nobody knows if this will work but it is one of many possible training interventions that could help—and be adopted by others.  We need more of this kind of out of the box thinking if we are going to get serious about helping low-income children thrive.

At least one mayoral candidate—Jim Kenney—has talked about  creating a universal pre-K program in the city. Mayor de Blasio in New York City has in fact done just that. But new programs ought to be launched with an eye toward being able to measure quality and reinforce the right training and supports.

We have some great centers for pediatric care and research and for the promotion of early childhood learning in this region. Given how clear it is that early intervention is the key to fighting poverty, here’s an idea for the next mayor: Why don’t we become the innovation capital for addressing childhood poverty? That truly would be a goal worthy of a great city.

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