The Challenge

At Child Care Associates in Texas, the central office team noticed that, after a period of gains, its CLASS evaluations of childcare and Head Start/Early Head Start providers had plateaued.

System leaders decided it was time to change how they approached outcomes improvement and they made three important decisions:

  • Shift ownership of CCA’s education vision from the central office to campus instructional leaders.
  • Recommit to using family experience as a critical performance measure.
  • Implement The Essential 0-5 Survey across 25 campuses to provide leaders with a unified framework to move program improvement forward.

Read Full Case Study

Improving CLASS instructional support scores was important to CCA – but our goal in using The Essential Survey was to focus on how supporting leaders will drive improvement in the classroom.

Karin Scott, Chief Performance Officer, Child Care Associates
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The Impact: Energized Leaders Re-shaping Daily Practice to Improve Outcomes and Equity

Karin Scott, Chief Performance Officer, outlines four key outcomes the CCA team experiences with their annual Essential Survey implementation:

  • Outcome One – Our entire team now uses a common framework to talk about improvement.
    “We transformed campus director meetings to bring people together who are working on common problems of practice – to share out what’s working, lift up people getting better outcomes, and talk about pivots when something doesn’t work.”
  • Outcome Two – We are reducing leader & teacher overwhelm by focusing on where they CAN have impact.
    “It can get overwhelming when you’re dealing with deep root causes to early childhood issues, like a national labor shortage or systemic racism. The Essential Survey toolkit’s root cause analysis allows us to dig down to root causes and build strategies to affect the most change with limited resources.”
  • Outcome Three – Staff at all levels are making proactive, positive changes in daily practice.
    “The Essential Survey got teams into the practice of reviewing data. They’re taking it into their own hands to make easy, accessible processes for people. They’re rethinking how they use their time.”
  • Outcome Four – We have more data to help us drive equity for families of color.
    “There is a huge equity piece to the Essential Survey work. We serve majority families of color and we need to know how they’re feeling about the services they are receiving, as well as how we can improve. This is a great tool to do that.”

We want staff to feel like they are valued and cared for while they’re here – and make sure they keep doing this work because it’s important for our community.

Karin Scott, Chief Performance Officer, Child Care Associates
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Looking Ahead

The Child Care Associates team is committed to implementing The Essential 0-5 Survey annually to sustain a culture that values and supports leaders. “It was important before the pandemic, but now more than ever we need to know how people are feeling,” says Karin Scott. “Our long-term hope is that our staff are supported and feel motivated to do their best work, which in turns leads to better interactions with children and teachers and better outcomes for families.”

Read Full Case Study

Complete this form to read our case study about the Child Care Associates’ rollout of The Essential 0-5 Survey across 25 early childhood campuses.

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Communities across the country are experiencing a dearth of child care options for families with infants and toddlers. Frequently described as a crisis, the availability of high-quality child care for infants and toddlers has only worsened since the COVID-19 pandemic began in spring 2020.

The need for expanded access to quality care for infants and toddlers in Illinois is clear—what is less clear is how to overcome the many challenges to meet this urgent need. The Infant and Toddler Child Care Roadmap project, led by Start Early, explores various ways Illinois can better meet the needs of families with infants and toddlers through the lens of the State’s child care community. The purpose of the project is to examine the current supply, demand and impact of infant-toddler child care on family well-being and the economy. The project is part of Raising Illinois’ Prenatal-to-Three Policy Agenda.

The Infant and Toddler Child Care Roadmap includes a review of recent and relevant literature on infant and toddler child care, a scan of relevant policies and practices in Illinois and other states, and a summary of findings from our engagement with Illinois’s child care field through focus groups and surveys. To better contextualize and interpret the data collected through these activities and to identify subsequent policy recommendations, a series of community conversations were convened around the State to share findings from the literature, state policy scan and surveys and focus groups and to reflect with communities on their implications. Input received from community conversations was integrated into this report, which details the project’s findings and recommendations for increasing access to infant and toddler child care in Illinois.

The following recommendations are reflective of the need for an intentional focus on infants and toddlers and are centered on the professionals who deliver child care services, as our State’s ability to expand infant-toddler child care capacity largely hinges on their ability to do so.

Key Recommendations:

  1. Strengthen the perception and reputation of infant-toddler teachers and other professionals working with children under age 3.
  2. Strengthen the workforce.
  3. Increase engagement with local communities.
  4. Improve the Child Care Assistance Program.
  5. Increase supports for children with disabilities, and early childhood staff and families struggling with mental health and social emotional challenges.
  6. Increase business and operational supports to child care programs.
  7. Improve availability of data on infants and toddlers.

Research & Evaluation Team & Collaborators

Special thanks to: City of Chicago Mayor’s Office & Every Child Ready Chicago Working Group; Illinois Early Childhood Asset Map; SAL Family and Community Services; Children’s Home & Aid Child Care Resource and Referral; Child Care Resource and Referral at John A. Logan College; Southern Illinois Coalition for Children and Families; Christine Brambila; Madison Conkin; Ireta Gasner; Brenda Eastham; Jennifer Kemp Berchtold; Beth Knight; Ann Kremer; Lindsay Maldonado; Marcy Mendenhall; Gail Nourse; Emily Ropars.


This project was made possible by grant number 90TP0057. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official view of the United States Department of Health and Human Services,

The Partnership for Pre-K Improvement (PPI) was launched in 2016 with a vision to develop and sustain high-quality, equitable state pre-K systems. Throughout the 5-year project, we partnered with 3 states – Oregon, Tennessee, and Washington – to learn alongside state education leaders, advocates and researchers about how to systematically improve pre-K quality. Along the way, we focused in on infrastructure and the policies, data, and implementation supports pre-K programs need to succeed.

As a culmination of this project, we created a report to capture lessons learned and recommendations for state early learning agency leaders, researchers and advocates, along with a free toolkit to support pre-K systems improvement.

What We Learned

  • Systems change is complex and occurs over a long period of time. Although we saw important improvements during the life of the project, substantial systems change is ongoing and occurs in cycles as states navigate governmental, political, leadership, and funding changes and challenges.
  • Practice frameworks can both advance and impede systems change work. While focusing on core elements of teaching and learning seemed that it would yield the greatest impact on quality, states were most successful when focusing on just one or two elements at a time.
  • Implementation science is useful at the systems level but does not sufficiently advance equity. While an implementation science framework was very helpful in driving improvements, equity does not automatically follow quality changes. Equity must instead be intentionally centered.
  • At the systems level, coordination, alignment, and resource-sharing across programs are necessary when striving to improve pre-K statewide. Quality and equity can only improve when pre-K is seen as a legitimate part of the broader education system.
  • Strong, trusting, and stable partnerships between advocates and researchers are key to success of improvement efforts. Specifically, relationships that are pre-existing, intentional in terms of allocating staff and resources, and provide opportunities to learn from each other, are all critical factors in building stable and successful partnerships.


For state systems leaders, advocates and research partners:

  • Build meaningful partnerships among systems leaders, advocates, and researchers.
  • Think beyond pre-K.
  • Recognize that implementation and infrastructure are critical missing pieces of systems change.
  • Use intentional strategies for increasing equity and elevating parent and teacher voices.
  • Prioritize data infrastructure and your state’s ability to use data for improvement.

For national and local consultants and technical assistance providers:

  • Center equity from the beginning of any project.
  • Ensure that state and local voices drive systems improvement consultation and technical assistance.
  • Throughout this work, keep in mind both long-term vision, and more pressing, daily challenges.
  • Provide flexible resources and funding.


Partnership for Pre-K Improvement Resources

For more on how our experiences in the Partnership for Pre-K Improvement provide critical lessons and actionable recommendations for those engaged in the complex work of improving state pre-K systems, download our new report & access the free Partnership for Pre-K Toolkit.

Looking for Additional Resources and Support for Your Quality Improvement Efforts?

Drawing from our experience on PPI and our work in states and communities across the country, the Start Early Consulting team supports partners to ensure that prenatal to five systems have the right policies, programs, and funding in place to prepare young children and their families for lifelong success. Email us for additional information.

Thank you to our partners: Cultivate Learning, Alliance for Early Success, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Executive Summary

In spring 2020, Start Early engaged more than 150 participants from 12 states and the District of Columbia in the Build it Back Better Dialogues*. The dialogues afforded space for Start Early to hear directly from parents, systems leaders and early childhood practitioners. Actively listening to stakeholders’ concerns provided critical insight into the challenges facing early childhood professionals and the families they serve. By sparking courageous and often difficult conversations, Start Early gained a deeper understanding of the disparities that perpetuate the opportunity gap among our youngest learners.

This report outlines key findings from the Build it Back Better Dialogues, including actionable information to help lead long-term, systemic changes through research- and evidence-based policies. Listening to the lived experiences of families and early childhood professionals generated critical questions that can be used to guide further discussions about the future of early childhood education and care in a post-pandemic world. Paying attention to the voices of people on all sides of early childhood systems will allow the creation of more equitable, responsive policies moving forward.

*The Build it Back Better Dialogues are not associated with the Build Back Better Framework.

We are excited to share our annual Start Early 2021 Year in Review, which showcases accomplishments and elevates reflections from last fiscal year (July 1, 2020 – June 30, 2021).

Highlights from this past year demonstrate how the early learning field adapted to continue being fully present for our families and providers regardless of where they were physically and emotionally.

At Start Early, we collaborated across program, policy and research partnerships to gather new perspectives and lessons learned. We implemented new strategies and expanded our innovative and interdisciplinary portfolio, positioning us to transform the field and drive collective action in the years to come.

2021 Year in Review

We are fortunate to have incredible partners in this work, and we are grateful for each of our supporters who make this work possible. We are champions for early learning, and together, we can transform lives.

Executive Summary

In March 2021, Start Early received a short-term exploratory grant from the Illinois Council on Developmental Disabilities to gather insights into how to better support the inclusion of young children with disabilities across school and community settings by engaging school district leaders and their management organizations. From March through August 2021, Start Early conducted key informant interviews and focus groups with school management associations and school district leaders, including principals, superintendents, school board members, and early childhood and early childhood special education coordinators to gain an understanding of what Local Education Agencies (LEAs) would need to be able to provide services to all preschool aged children with IEPs regardless of setting, with a focus on outside-of-school settings.

This report outlines key findings from these focus groups and potential next steps for policy makers and systems leaders to build LEA and state capacity to leverage new federal resources on inclusion. This work will inform early childhood systems efforts in Illinois including the Early Childhood Transformation’s implementation of the Funding Commission recommendations, the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood’s needs assessment and strategic planning process funded through the federal Preschool Development Grant, and the work that is anticipated under the Build Back Better Act.

Policy Team & Collaborators


This report was prepared thanks to many individuals and organizations that generously provided time and expertise, research, consultation and other supports. Special thanks to: Debra Pacchiano, Isabel Farrar, Ann Kremer, Emily Ropars, focus group participants and key informants.

In partnership with the Illinois Council on Developmental Disabilities. This project was supported, in part by grant number CFDA 93.630, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects with government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official ACL policy.


By Debra Pacchiano, Vice President of Translational Research and Isabel Farrar, Research Associate at Start Early

Start Early recently organized a session at the 2021 Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) conference that highlighted three soon-to-be published research studies from across the field that push our understanding of whether and how The Essential 0-5 Survey framework relates to other aspects of quality and outcomes we care about in early childhood programs. Together, these studies examine how specific organizational conditions identified in the survey framework impact teacher well-being and retention and how to measure the strength of these essential conditions within programs serving infants and toddlers.

What we continue to find is that nurturing begets nurturing: when teachers, staff and families are nurtured and supported by robust organizational conditions, especially facilitative and instructional leadership and routine collaboration with peers, teachers and staff are more committed, persistent, and competent in meeting the dynamic and changing needs of children and families.

In one upcoming study, researchers Anna J. Markowitz, Daphna Bassok, and Amanda Rosensky of the University of Virginia used data from early childhood programs across Louisiana to explore associations between teachers’ perceptions of their leaders as effective instructional leaders and measures of teacher turnover intentions, observed turnover, teacher well-being and the quality of teacher-child interactions. Their initial findings strengthen the evidence that site leadership is critically important to the quality of teachers’ interactions with children, as well as to teachers’ commitment to the program and decisions to remain in their position. These authors suggest that their findings indicate that coherent leadership development is a “potentially powerful area of intervention” impacting teacher/staff retention and quality improvements in early education settings.

Another study, conducted by Allison Friedman-Krauss, Milagros Nores, Charles Whitman, and W. Steven Barnett at the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) examines how differences in teachers’ perceptions of organizational conditions vary by teacher/school/district characterizations and impact classroom quality and teachers’ well-being. This research finds a strong association between teacher perceptions of their school organizational conditions and teacher depressive symptoms, suggesting that supporting teacher well-being is particularly important in today’s pandemic context.

Early Childhood Education & Workplace Conditions

Learn more about our three upcoming research studies.

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And finally, we presented recent research conducted with Marc Brodersen and Joshua Stewart at Marzano Research that explores whether an adapted version of The Essential 0-5 Survey is relevant to and effectively measures the strength of organizational conditions in infant and toddler settings, something the field currently lacks. The team used cognitive interviews and survey data from a sample of Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership grantees and programs in three states to evaluate the technical adequacy of the surveys. Initial findings suggest the adapted surveys do capture teacher, staff, and parent perceptions of these essential conditions meaningfully and reliably within programs serving infants, toddlers and their families.

These new research findings add to the growing body of evidence that surrounding teachers and practitioners with robust workplace supports improves their well-being, increases collective purpose and responsibility, and builds their individual and collective capacity to successfully meet the changing and diverse needs of young children and their families starting at birth. Efforts to support leaders in early childhood settings as they support their staff are more important now more than ever given the reality that programs are acutely struggling to support and retain staff due to COVID-19.

Learn more about the three upcoming research studies in our research brief.

More Like This

Pre-kindergarten (pre-K) enrollment has risen steadily in the United States in recent decades, largely driven by the mounting body of research evidence on the effectiveness of early childhood education. However, the same children, who are most at-risk for ongoing academic struggles and the most likely to benefit from high-quality early educational experiences, are least likely to have access to high-quality pre-K options, which contributes to inequitable enrollment within districts. Importantly, school districts are making choices about where to place pre-K classrooms and developing policies for how families can apply and who is enrolled. In doing so, districts are pulling policy levers that influence students’ access to pre-K; but to date very few of these policies have been rigorously examined.

A recent study by education researchers at Start Early, NORC at the University of Chicago, and UChicago Consortium on School Research explores whether and how Chicago’s pre-K system was more equitable after the district implemented a set of policies focused on access to and enrollment in school-based pre-K beginning in 2013-14. Furthermore, this research seeks to understand how access and enrollment varied depending on students’ neighborhood characteristics and how policy changes and access to full-day, school-based pre-K were related to learning outcomes in elementary school.

The findings from this study of Chicago’s efforts offer key insights for other school districts implementing similar policies nationwide.

Key Findings

  • Following major policy changes in Chicago, including 1) increasing the number of full-day, school-based pre-K classrooms, and 2) reallocating pre-K classrooms through the city – access to full-day school-based pre-K increased for nearly all students. The portion of elementary schools in the Chicago Public School district (CPS) with full-day pre-K quadrupled (from 10% to 41%). Post policy changes, high priority student groups lived near more full-day, school-based pre-K classrooms and lived closer to a CPS school with a full-day pre-K classroom.
  • In contrast to full-day pre-K, access to any CPS pre-K (including half-day), did not change substantially following the policy shift.
  • Overall, full-day, school-based pre-K enrollment rates grew nearly four-fold from 3.2% in 2010-11 to 11.6% in 2015-16. Black students and students living in lowest-income neighborhoods were three times more likely to enroll in full-day pre-K following policy changes. Latinx students were also more likely to enroll in full-day pre-K following policy changes, but at rates much lower than the city average.
  • Study findings show that policy changes to Chicago’s school-based pre-K system enabled greater equity in both access to and enrollment in full-day, school-based pre-K for high-priority student groups (i.e., students of color, English Learners, and students living in neighborhoods with lower income and higher unemployment) that had been previously under-enrolled.
  • Contrary to initial concerns, analyses of enrollment data from preschool programs run by community-based organizations (CBOs) seem to indicate that the expansion of full-day, school-based pre-K classrooms did not take away students from CBO programs overall in Chicago. Following policy changes, more students were enrolled in full-day classrooms in both CBO preschool and CPS school-based pre-K.
  • We used a data-driven methodology for characterizing Chicago neighborhoods, that leverages publicly available census data and allows us to consider many neighborhood characteristics simultaneously. This “neighborhood-centered” method resulted in a concise set of five neighborhoods groupings in Chicago that focuses our attention on the characteristics of residents and allow us to see variation within community areas more clearly.
  • The concentration of full-day pre-K seats increased most in primarily Black neighborhoods and neighborhoods with lower income on the West and South Sides of Chicago. Our study provides one example of how understanding the characteristics of neighborhoods can we be useful to inform policy decisions.
  • District policies determine who has access to school-based pre-K. As school districts nationwide grapple with limited full-day pre-K capacity, this study offers important insights. Most notably, increasing access to school-based, full-day pre-K may be an effective policy strategy for increasing enrollment among high-priority student groups and making pre-K opportunities more equitable.
  • Increased access was also related to higher kindergarten entry skills and ultimately better academic outcomes in second grade, particularly for high-priority students. Average second grade math and reading test scores and academic grades increased the most for some high-priority student groups, including Black students, students in the lowest-income group, and students living in mostly Black neighborhoods.

Publications & Resources

Research & Evaluation Team & Collaborators


The research described here was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant #R305A180510 to NORC at the University of Chicago. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.

The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) provides states with a unique opportunity to strategically lay the foundation for addressing long-standing inequities and best supporting children with disabilities and developmental delays, who have long been underrepresented in our early childhood system and have endured some of the greatest impacts of the pandemic. As states navigate the complexity that is effectively utilizing and distributing these historic funds, equity should be at the center of their process to prioritize the needs of children and families who have been disproportionately impacted.

The following guide contains strategies and considerations for using federal funds to prioritize children with disabilities and developmental delays with a focus on equity. The guide specifically addresses use of the following funds:

  • Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) Part B – Section 619 ($200 Million) and IDEA Part C ($250 Million)
  • Supplemental Child Care and Development Block Grant ($14.99 Billion) and Child Care Stabilization Funds ($23.98 Billion)
  • Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, aka ESSER ($122.77 Billion)
  • Head Start Funds ($1 Billion)

There are several opportunities to ensure ARPA funds are implemented at the state and local level to maximize impact for our children with disabilities and their families. Now is the time to ensure families — particularly families of color — can access the early intervention and early childhood special education services they need (and may have been previously disconnected from), better support inclusive child care and preschool programs for young children with disabilities, and test out innovative service delivery models. By strategically utilizing these investments to meet the needs of children and families most affected, states can work towards building a more equitable early childhood system and addressing existing disparities that were only worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you are interested in discussing possible strategies or sharing what your state is planning on doing to support young children with disabilities using ARPA funds, we would love to hear from you! Please email Zareen Kamal at [email protected]

In support of the Every Child Ready Chicago initiative, Start Early began exploring the creation of a Chicago early childhood research consortium, which would bring together researchers, policymakers, practitioners, families, and community representatives across sectors in a robust, long-term research-practice partnership focused on helping Chicago achieve its vision for a strong early childhood system.

Access to relevant, actionable, and timely evidence and data that can guide the decisions of policymakers and program leaders is critical to the success of early childhood, and any other, systems-building initiatives. For an early childhood system as large and ambitious as Chicago, no one research partner or institution can provide these supports alone; a consortium of researchers and research institutions working together is key. Chicago already benefits from several research consortia, but none focus specifically on the city’s early childhood system.

Our exploratory report presents the findings of the initial inquiry phase: stakeholder interviews with 26 participants from 16 different organizations, including researchers, advocates, practitioners, leaders of community-based organizations, City of Chicago officials and staff, and other experts. The consensus that emerged was clear:

  • Chicago needs an early childhood research consortium to serve as a long-term, sustainable research partnership focused exclusively on Chicago’s cross-sector, systemwide early childhood priorities.
  • The research consortium should function as:
    • A neutral third-party without allegiance to, or conflicts of interest with, any City agency, office or department.
    • A trusted thought partner and capacity support for City agencies, offices and departments, as well as community and systems leaders.
    • A “hub” for researchers across institutions and disciplines.
    • An integrated complement to existing and emerging infrastructure, systems, consortia and partnerships; it should not duplicate or replace them.

The exploratory interviews also helped to specify a set of important strategic questions that remain unanswered. In the next phase of this work, it will be important to bring together potential partners for nuanced discussions regarding these recommendations, strategic questions and additional topics that emerge as this work progresses. We are excited to catalyze these conversations and facilitate this process for Chicago’s early childhood community.