This article was originally published on the Chronicle of Philanthropy website on April 4, 2016.
From the moment they start kindergarten, a quarter of children from low-income families are not prepared to learn. And while we know from research that the greatest opportunities to improve the trajectory of a child's life happen from pregnancy through age 5, neither government nor philanthropy is taking all the steps needed to ensure every child has access to strong early-education programs that will lead to high school and college diplomas and higher incomes throughout their adult lives.
The discrepancy in the dollars that go to aiding young children and older ones is stark. Annual state and federal government spending on education for 6- to 18-year-olds is nearly four times as high per capita as spending on children from birth to 5. Moreover, philanthropic funding for elementary and secondary education totals more than five times that for early childhood. Clearly, it's time to change how we think about and fund programs aimed at the early years of a youngster's life. It's a matter of economic, fiscal, and common sense.
One reason some donors and foundations have been reluctant to support this cause is that they are not certain what efforts make a difference. To that end, the Pritzker Children's Initiative and the Bridgespan Group collaborated over 18 months to create a guide to early-childhood opportunities that have proven track records.
In our research, we identified 13 opportunities for investment that can dramatically increase kindergarten readiness for at-risk children. Although there is no single path that works best, it's clear what philanthropists can do that will indeed make a difference.
Those investments fall into five broad categories:
Strengthen early care and education at state and local levels to ensure their quality continuously improves.
Nearly all states already have adopted Quality Rating and Improvement Systems or plan to do so. This means the quality of early-child-care and education providers is being rated in a way similar to hotel star ratings. In states that have a rating system in place, we've already seen greater efficiency, accountability, and transparency for parents who choose quality child-care and education options for their children.
Both states and providers need support in making quality improvements. Organizations like the Build Initiative, created by the Early Childhood Funders' Collaborative, provide guidance to statewide systems that want to strengthen local programs and test new models. Philanthropists have also supported providers with training, assistance, and funding to improve quality and achieve higher ratings.
Expand health and developmental screenings that provide parents with resources to optimize children's physical and emotional development.
As a nation, we do not systematically measure kindergarten readiness, despite the fact that it is such a critical milestone in a child's development. Many communities also lack the systems or tools to universally and regularly measure children's progress from birth to age 5 on the key factors that demonstrate school-readiness, leaving them unsure of the local need for quality early-childhood programs.
One promising strategy enlists pediatricians and their staff members to help parents receive support to strengthen their parenting skills and connect with other early-childhood resources.
Improve the training, continuing education, professional development, and compensation of early-childhood educators.
Early-childhood educators play a critical role in a child's development, and their education and training should reflect their importance. Two critical barriers facing the early-childhood work force today are limited professional-development opportunities and low compensation, both of which present ripe opportunities for philanthropy.
Research has demonstrated the importance of professional development that occurs in the classroom and that can assist teachers, caregivers, and program leaders where they are. Foundations and donors can support trainers and experts to work with the directors of individual programs to help raise the effectiveness of the program's entire work force. In addition, philanthropy can augment or match funds from a $500 million federal appropriation for Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships that supports this kind of assistance.
But unless we improve compensation, investments in professional development may fall flat as qualified people don't join the work force. Philanthropy can play a critical role in helping to encourage public policies that promote better compensation. At the national level, foundations can fund research to document existing wages, education, and turnover in the early-child-care and education work force. This research can be used to advocate for sustainable, dedicated funding sources for early-childhood programs. At the local level, philanthropy can help state agencies figure out what steps they can take to improve workers' wages.
Support greater access to high-quality, proven programs that help parents and families foster their children's development.
A wide range of high-quality, effective programs already exists and could support more children and families. For instance, experts widely agree that parents are the first and best teachers for very young children. Yet effective parent-support programs reached only 115,000 children in 2014, an estimated 2.5 percent of the need.
In addition, home-visiting, pregnancy-focused, and mental health-related programs all have shown success, but they reach a fraction of the families who could benefit. Grant makers can make investments that help these proven programs spread much faster to serve more children and families.
Philanthropists also have opportunities to invest in the capacity of these programs to allow them to reach more families; support public-private financing mechanisms to expand programs; and fund groups that are advocating for increased local, state, and federal funding for such programs.
Promote program innovation and improvement and share what works, especially for programs that support parents as well as their family and friends who play a role in child care.
Research and development are key to the long-term success of preparing more children for kindergarten, especially as our rapidly evolving understanding of brain development will continue to help create more effective approaches to helping young learners. Philanthropy can do much to foster program innovation and improvement to better understand what works and how effective programs can be expanded. A critical area that needs more research is how to enhance the quality of care for the 25 percent of low-income children under age 5 who spend a significant portion of time in informal settings with family, friends, and neighbors.
Numerous grant makers have already shown how to make a significant impact on the trajectory of young children's lives. While private capital alone cannot achieve the outcomes we seek, philanthropic investments play a critical role in demonstrating what works and encouraging government at all levels to make smarter and more cost-effective investments in early childhood.
Now is the time for philanthropy, business, and government to expand early-childhood opportunities so all of our children arrive at school ready to learn and achieve success throughout their lives. We believe increased private and public investment to help young children in low-income families prepare for kindergarten is one of the smartest investments that we can make.
J.B. Pritzker is an entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist in Chicago and coauthor of "Achieving Kindergarten Readiness for All Our Children" with Jeffrey Bradach and Katherine Kaufmann, partners at the Bridgespan Group.