Collaborating to Improve Early Care and Education

Sarah Kim brings a strong background in survey research to her work with teams that are examining strategies to improve the quality of early learning—particularly for children from low-income families—and promote the school readiness and success of all children. She has contributed her quantitative and qualitative methodological expertise to several studies, including a formative and summative evaluation of the Head Start National Center on Program Management and Fiscal Operations. Currently she is part of a team that is investigating the role of state- and community-level collaboration in enhancing the quality, accessibility, and comprehensiveness of early care and education. In this post, Sarah shares early findings from the study—presented in two recent briefs co-authored by Principal Investigator (PI) Gary Resnick, co-PI Meghan Broadstone, Sarah, and Heidi Rosenberg—and reflects on potential implications of the research.

The federal government’s FY 2016 budget is devoting $12.25 billion to improving early care and education—specifically early learning experiences, health services, and the safety of environments—for children who live in families of low income. The budget has allotted $2.8 billion for the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) that supports child care subsidies for low-income families through state-administered Child Care and Development Fund lead agencies; $9.2 billion for Head Start—which includes other Head Start increases like the Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships; and $250 million for Preschool Development Grants. The government is making these investments because research has established that access to affordable, high-quality early care and education plays a key role in promoting the health, school readiness, and future school success of young children whose families face the adversities that accompany low-income circumstances. Early intervention and family support gives these children a fighting chance.

In these various grants, state early care and education agencies are encouraged or required to work together, or collaborate, in order to increase parents’ access to full-time, high-quality child care—allowing them to secure employment and pursue training.  Bringing agencies and administrators that have similar goals to improve early care and education to the same table can help stakeholders figure out how to bridge any existing gaps between policies and programming that weaken services to children and families. Collaboration can also bring accountability in achieving goals and, ultimately, meeting the needs of those receiving the services.

Although collaborating to extend services to more families and children and minimize conflicting services sounds very intuitive, it can be challenging. Recently, the Child Care Collaboration Study team that I’ve been working with for two years published two briefs that share some of our preliminary results. For our study, we define collaboration as an interaction between two or more agencies and their representatives aimed at improving access to, and the quality of, early care and education. In Phase I of our study, our team examined existing collaborations at the state level among leaders from each of the three major entities—the Child Care and Development Fund, Early Head Start/Head Start, and state-funded pre-kindergarten—responsible for administering federal funds related to early child care and education (read this brief to learn more about our methodology).

One of our key takeaways from our Phase I research is that when all three early care and education entities are located within the same state agency, state leaders are more likely to report higher levels of collaboration on a standard measure—we utilized Frey’s Levels of Collaboration Scale. Another key takeaway is that the majority of state Child Care and Development Fund administrators, Head Start collaboration directors, and state early childhood specialists administering state pre-kindergarten programs that responded to our survey reported higher ratings of collaboration when associated with the following three factors:

  • Holding Regular Meetings: Having key stakeholders at the table physically, in-person, and meeting regularly seems to lead to high levels of collaboration.
  • Pre-existing Formal and Informal Relationships: Child Care and Development Fund administrators and Head Start collaboration directors were more likely to identify relationships between agencies as a factor that facilitates collaboration, while early childhood specialists were equally likely to choose pre-existing relationships between agencies and people as factors.
  • Consistent Program Objectives and Strategic Plans: Working to address similar objectives, and having similar strategic plans, is reported to be a contributing factor to facilitate collaboration across state agencies.

Identifying factors that support collaboration among agencies becomes increasingly important as major shifts occur in the field—including new federal funding with altered parameters such as the reauthorization of CCDBG, Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships, or the Preschool Development Grant—that require state leaders to work together and to engage new partners in strengthening systems and services. Many state leaders may need more guidance to navigate these shifts.

For example, by 2020, all states with CCDBG funding must achieve a minimum requirement to set aside 12% of their funding for improving overall quality (9%) and the quality of infant and toddler care (3%). These grants aim “to protect the health and safety of children in child care, promote continuity of access to subsidy for low-income families, better inform parents and the general public about the child care choices available to them, and improve the overall quality of early learning and afterschool programs.” As Child Care and Development Fund administrators work to achieve these goals and make decisions to improve quality, collaborating with all stakeholders—state leaders from all programs, all early care and education and afterschool providers, families, and the general public—in the process can provide accountability and may become a crucial component for successful, streamlined implementation of these grants. What could that look like?

As noted, our study uses Frey’s levels of collaboration scale, which includes four ratings of no interaction, networking, coordination, and collaboration. In our modified version of the scale, “collaboration” entails sharing ideas and resources; engaging in frequent communication, characterized by mutual trust; and making decisions jointly. Thus, Child Care and Development Fund administrators would need to share ideas and resources with providers in local programs, with families, and with other state leaders; need to establish mutual trust with all parties and be in frequent communication; and need to make decisions jointly. For Child Care and Development Fund administrators, this kind of highly inclusive collaboration may become very important, given the intent of the CCDBG to put the needs of providers and families at the forefront of implementation. Bringing providers and families to the collaboration table is a particularly important way to ensure their input and buy in as administrators work to put new practices and policies in place.

Researchers can also play a role in implementation by engaging and collaborating with all of these key stakeholders. The early care and education research field’s overall aim should be to improve the chances of the most vulnerable of our country, the youngest generation who need to overcome many obstacles to achieve success in school and life. The families of these children, and their early care and education providers, have especially important insights to contribute to research. In hopes to learn about existing collaboration in local settings, Phase II of our study will include gathering survey data from center-based and family child care providers in Maryland and Vermont.

At the 2015 Child Care Policy Research Consortium, I was encouraged to learn about other research projects that are being more intentional about including the perspectives of providers and families in their studies—as well as focusing on sound child care research, identifying and responding to critical issues, and linking child care research with policy and practice. As a researcher, I keenly feel the responsibility to bridge the gap between research and practice so that findings can be digestible, applicable, and beneficial to the field and to families. To do that, practicing—and not just studying—effective collaboration provides an immediate feedback loop in whether research is meeting the needs of the field and of families of low income.