BySaras Chung , Nishesh Chalise , Rachel Matsumoto , Ellen O’Neill
Investing in early childhood education (ECE) can create upward economic mobility for children in poverty for generations (as noted in the Perry Preschool ProjectLawrence J. Schweinhart; Helen V. Barnes; and David P. Weikart. “Significant Benefits: The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study through 27." Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press, 1993. and works by James HeckmanHeckman, James; Rodrigo Pinto; and Peter Savelyev. “Understanding the Mechanisms through Which an Influential Early Childhood Program Boosted Adult Outcomes.” American Economic Review, 103 (6): 2052-86.). Many communities are ramping up investments to expand ECE, but the question leaders must reckon with is: How do we grow access while maintaining quality and ensuring equitable outcomes?COVID-19’s Ongoing Effects on Early Childhood Education highlights equity related issues in ECE in St. Louis and how the challenge has been exacerbated by COVID-19. See The First Step to Equity STL ECE - Detailed Methodology for equity-related challenges and opportunities in St. Louis.
Scaling growth in ECE is not simple. Achieving these goals while minimizing negative unintended consequences require an understanding of the interconnected nature of the ECE system. In St. Louis, we explored how to expand quality seats by using system dynamics (a method using system maps and computational simulation) to understand a system and the outcomes it produces.Richardson, George P. "Reflections on the Foundations of System Dynamics.” System Dynamics Review July-September 27.3 (2011): 219-43.
Mapping a system from a researcher’s or policymaker’s perspective paints an incomplete picture of the system. As statistician George Box noted, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” To create a more robust model of ECE, we engaged in deep community listening to learn from families experiencing poverty by asking, “What does your child do during the day? What has been your experience with the early childhood system in St. Louis?”
We learned that families don’t enroll in ECE just because there is a seat and subsidy available. Additionally, centers offering financial support have trouble recruiting children. Some school districts even developed teams to recruit families through street outreach. Why? In a system that already offers subsidies and care, families of small children shared the following barriers:
In addition to parents, we also reached out to teachers and ECE center directors, who weighed in with the following:
These narratives shared from the lived experiences of parents, caregivers and teachers provide a deeper understanding of how the ECE system is structured (these stories are illustrated in the video below). Using the systems map as a starting point, we developed a system dynamics simulation model and tested interventions suggested by practitioners, such as expanding care by creating new seats.
NOTE: The video above shows the interdependencies between enrollment, quality and accessibility within ECE systemsOn the diagram, a plus (+) sign indicates both variables moving in the same direction and a minus (-) sign indicates variables moving in opposite directions. Reinforcing feedback loops that demonstrate vicious or virtuous cycles are labeled “R,” whereas balancing feedback loops that demonstrate constraining behavior are labeled “B.”.
The early childhood education system, or ECE, is limited by capacity for families attempting to enroll their children.
If there are no available seats in a program, families cannot enroll.
However, increasing the number of open seats by expanding classrooms and opening up new programs does not necessarily result in more families enrolling their children.
Word of mouth plays an important and often overlooked role in families’ decisions to seek out early childhood education.
When children are thriving in high-quality environments, other families are more likely to enroll their children.
When children have negative experiences, families tell members of their communities, making others less likely to enroll.
This word-of-mouth cycle also impacts whether programs have access to the resources required to provide high-quality care.
Families experiencing environments where staff are highly trained and compensated, children have safe and exciting places to learn, and food and materials are high-quality.
They see and share the benefit of high-quality early childhood education.
Then others are more likely to enroll, resulting in more dollars for staffing and high-quality learning environments.
Programs with limited dollars may experience the vicious side of this cycle. Already challenged to secure staff and resources, they struggle to attract families. Without children enrolled, programs cannot fund what it takes to provide higher quality care, which further drives families away.
Thus, opening or expanding programs that are not providing high-quality ECE will not entice more families to enroll.
By better understanding the ways interconnected structures such as these create limitations and drive behavior in early childhood education, we can better understand how to truly change the system.
In testing this scenario using a computational simulation model, we gained two important but counterintuitive insights:
Approaching early childhood expansion must be done with a clear understanding of how the current system is structured. Educational institutions have failed families in poverty for generations. We must challenge our assumption that people will enroll children in ECE because there are available seats.
At every step, we should ask ourselves how we can design systems that acknowledge the traumatic experiences, fears and preferences of families who would most benefit from ECE. With scarce dollars and the promise of community transformation, it is important to understand the effects of system solutions—both intended and unintended.