Exploring New Solutions to Improve Outcomes for Vulnerable Children

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Education announced it awarded grants to a cohort of eight government organizations for a Preschool Pay For Success feasibility pilot, to explore how the Pay for Success (PFS) model can improve access to high-quality preschool and improve outcomes for children most at risk. Third Sector partnered with three of the eight preschool PFS feasibility grantees, Cuyahoga County (Ohio), Mecklenburg County (North Carolina), and Santa Clara County (California), and participated in a learning community.

The goal of the Department of Education grant was to “bring together state and local partners, with private and philanthropic investments, to test new ideas, develop new solutions, and improve the learning and further improve outcomes for our most vulnerable children.” Recognizing that progress cannot be done in a vacuum, the Urban Institute convened a learning community for like-minded community leaders from each of the eight preschool PFS feasibility grantees to connect with each other, brainstorm solutions, and think creatively about how to improve outcomes for children in their communities.

The learning community and federal preschool grantee cohort highlighted the value of an outcomes-oriented, collaborative approach to addressing the "trilemma" of early childhood, balancing the issues of access, quality, and affordability of early childhood education. Grantees had the opportunity to bring together various stakeholders in their communities, including state leaders, community and district providers, business community representatives, social scientists, and funders to improve local early childhood education. Through the intentional feasibility assessment process, these stakeholders engaged in the true work of breaking down silos and empowering communities to develop solutions.

Learning Mindset and Innovation: Early PFS feasibility assessments focused almost exclusively on determining if a traditional PFS contracting structure was viable to expand or improve programs. As Third Sector continues to build and grow the field of outcomes contracting, we’ve seen a shift away from this narrow focus to exploring more broadly how applying an outcomes oriented focus can improve and expand programs. The preschool grantee communities embraced that the value of the PFS feasibility assessment is much broader than a “yes/no” PFS structure viability answer, but an opportunity to engage partners in creating, testing, and refining a vision for improving outcomes for young children.

In Cuyahoga County, Third Sector developed a community engagement workstream that provided an opportunity to further define the Universal Prekindergarten Program (UPK) value proposition, gain a deeper understanding of how it complements other programs in the community, and engage with community leaders about their vision for this program. The rigorous retrospective evaluation provided an opportunity to understand program impacts, what internal and external factors might drive success for children enrolled in UPK, and the specific subpopulations of children in the program, and how to translate learnings into tangible program improvements.

Moving from Test Cases to Sustainability: PFS feasibility pilots are a valuable proof of concept, and short-term funding can provide government and providers flexibility to test innovative solutions. While pilots are an opportunity to explore what works, the field has evolved to more intently build in sustainability plans to ensure the expanded preschool slots, or other project goals, remain viable after a pilot ends.

Recognizing that “one size” doesn’t fit all, communities have started pushing the boundaries of outcomes contracting to include other tools, in addition to social impact bonds. Developed by over a hundred partners, Santa Clara County’s Early Learning Master Plan articulates a priority of exploring outcomes-based contracting models as a strategy for increasing access. One of these strategies is an outcomes fund, catalyzed by philanthropic partners, and sustainably supported by braiding funding between publicly available state dollars, local partners, and adopting a mixed-income classroom model.

Equity and Inclusion: Studies show that high-quality preschool programs set an important developmental foundation for student academic success and that the benefits are often strongest among students who come from economically disadvantaged settings or are categorized as dual language learners. Communities embraced the PFS feasibility assessment as an opportunity to explore mechanisms for increasing equity, or combating inequities in access or quality that exacerbate disparities in student development and academic outcomes between students from historically underserved backgrounds compared to their peers.

In Santa Clara County, partners explored outcomes contracting as a mechanism to expand access to a high-quality preschool program that targets low-income and at-risk children. In addition to scaling the state-subsidized high-quality program, Santa Clara County explored building in quality enhancements, such as increased dosage through a full-day, full-year model and professional development to better support dual language learners and children with special needs. A mixed classroom approach serving children from economically diverse backgrounds, which studies have shown improves educational outcomes for all students, can also be further explored to increase access to high-quality preschool

Research demonstrated that while current preschool programs in Mecklenburg County are successful in improving outcomes essential to school success, further enhancements to the school experience in preschool through third grade can help to both sustain early gains and narrow the gap between children from low-income families and their peers from higher-income families. Mecklenburg County’s PFS study explored whether PFS can be used to enhance preschool and early elementary (grades K-3) programming for low-income children, and more intently address concerns with “fade out,” or the notion that the effects of preschool diminish while children are in elementary school. Learnings from the PFS feasibility assessment are informing the design and implementation of Mecklenburg County’s new expanded prekindergarten program.

Pay for Success is still in its infancy and the Department of Education’s Preschool Pay for Success feasibility cohort highlights how communities are already starting to embed the lessons learned from early projects. The communities in this cohort now have a better understanding that implementing a PFS project is not easy but it has the opportunity to leverage data to drive program improvement, engage a diverse group of community stakeholders, and direct resources and attention to a population that has been considered underserved.