Volume 4: No. 4, October 2007
COMMUNITY CASE STUDY
The following criteria were developed to provide principles and a framework for the indicator development. The list of indicators was to be concise (i.e., approximately 10 in number), practical (i.e., actionable), and strategic (i.e., linked to realistic local opportunities).
The indicators would be chosen to track school readiness in the following contexts:
The indicators were to reflect the five outcomes adopted by the Board of Supervisors in 1993:
Indicators will be selected because they are understandable, the data are of high quality, and they measure an important aspect of school readiness. The ideal indicators are those with high “communication power” (i.e., understandable to a broad audience), “data power” (i.e., data are regularly collected and are of high quality), and “proxy power” (i.e., they are a reasonable proxy measure for, and reflect some important aspect of, school readiness) (12).
Figure 1. Framework and criteria for School Readiness Indicator Workgroup, Los Angeles County, 2003.
School readiness goals deemed important by the workgroup would be included in the final indicator set regardless of the availability of ideal data. A data development agenda was developed to encourage future work on indicators for these hard-to-measure goals. For example, “children are born at healthy birth weights” relies on data from birth records, and “families have adequate food” relies on survey data collected using a food insecurity measure. However, “schools, families, and caregivers work together to ensure a positive transition to K through 6 education” lacks a data source that met the selection criteria. Since the transition to school is an important component of school readiness, this goal was included without a corresponding indicator to encourage the development of ways to measure this important construct (Figure 2). First 5 LA’s report Shaping the Future includes a complete description of indicators and data sources (23).
|Children are born at healthy birth weights.||Newborns with low and very low birthweights|
|Children receive preventive health care.||Children aged 0 to 5 years whose parents report having a regular source of health care; children aged 0 to 5 years who have health insurance; hospitalizations of children with asthma.|
|Children are free from abuse and neglect and thrive in permanent homes.||Child abuse and neglect reports to the Department of Child and Family Services that result in Emergency Response services for children aged 0 to 5 years.|
|Families ensure that children are safe from unintentional injuries.||To be developed.|
|Communities offer safe places for children to live and play.||Children aged 1-5 years whose parents say they can easily get to a park, playground, or other safe place to play.|
|Families have adequate food.||Households below 300% of the federal poverty guidelines and with dependents aged 18 or younger who are food insecure.|
|Families have adequate financial resources.||Children aged 0 to 5 years living in families with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines.|
|Communities offer affordable housing for families.||To be developed.|
|Families have supportive networks and are able to find information and assistance.||Children aged 0 to 5 years whose parents say it is “very” or “somewhat” easy to find someone to talk to when they need advice about raising their child.|
|Families have access to quality child care.||Children aged 0 to 5 years whose parents report difficulty finding the child care they need on a regular basis; licensed child care spaces for children aged 0 to 5 years.|
|Communities encourage educational attainment for families.||Infants born annually to women/men aged 21 years and older with at least 12 years of education.|
|Families and caregivers interact with children in ways that promote cognitive, linguistic, social–emotional, and physical development.||Children aged 0 to 5 years who are read to daily by a parent or family member.|
|Schools and child care programs promote an environment that is conducive to learning.||To be developed.|
|Schools, families, and caregivers work together to ensure a positive transition to K-6 education.||To be developed.|
|Communities support families and children with special needs.||Children aged 3 and 4 years who are identified with serious but often missed disabilities and are enrolled in special education programs.|
Figure 2. School readiness goals and indicators, Los Angeles County, 2003.
The LA County Board of Supervisors adopted the School Readiness Goals and Indicators (SRIs) and approved a countywide consensus building plan designed to engage key stakeholders in the use of the indicators for planning, evaluation, and community strengthening activities. To implement this plan, the CPC Service Planning Area Councils (SPACs) focused a large part of their community engagement efforts on school readiness. One council held a series of school readiness community forums, in which the indicators were used as a call to action for families, communities, and schools to do their part in ensuring children’s readiness for school. Parents organized themselves around specific actions they could take to promote the school readiness of children in their communities. Actions included 1) more intentional use of parent-child together time for learning purposes (e.g., reading labels at grocery store, measuring ingredients in the kitchen), 2) communicating with teachers and school administrators about ways to make the school environment more welcoming and engaging for parents, 3) working collectively through Neighborhood Action Councils to address neighborhood safety hazards (e.g., freeway on-ramps, unsanitary conditions).
The Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) developed a school readiness action plan that aligns its Head Start goals and objectives with the SRIs. Also in keeping with the SRIs, LACOE has integrated a new social–emotional competence strand into its training curriculum for Head Start parents, along with technical assistance to parents to support a seamless transition of children from Head Start to the public school system. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has convened meetings with early education administrators and parents through its Parent Leadership Institute to educate them about the indicators and elicit feedback on their effective use. LAUSD has also incorporated many of the SRIs into its early education improvement plan and has developed performance measures based on the indicators.
Finally, as part of its SRI dissemination efforts, First 5 LA developed a tool that has supported these consensus building and community engagement activities. Shaping the Future (23), a community-oriented tool designed to promote school readiness, presents the indicator data in a user-friendly format designed to educate readers on the multifaceted nature of school readiness, provide a quick reference to all the school readiness goals and indicators, and suggest ways that communities can take specific action to improve performance on each of the indicators.
Incorporating the SRIs into First 5 LA’s strategic plan and results-based accountability framework was a key step that ensured that the Commission’s strategic efforts and funded grants would be guided by the holistic concept of school readiness. The strategic plan laid out three goal areas: 1) health, 2) early learning, and 3) safe children and families. The SRIs most relevant to each goal area were the outcome that the corresponding strategies would seek to effect. The progress of funded initiatives under each goal area would be tracked using performance measures linked to broader changes in population-level SRIs based on the best available research evidence. For example, funded grantees and partners in the Healthy Births Initiative (health goal area) are using performance measures to improve the quality of both prenatal care and comprehensive case management services for at-risk pregnant women with the ultimate goal of reducing poor birth outcomes (SR goal 1). Another important example is the Los Angeles Universal Preschool Initiative (early learning goal area), which is implementing a quality rating system for its subsidized child care slots toward the goal of increased access to quality child care (SR goal 10). One of the challenges encountered by First 5 LA in implementing a results-based accountability framework was how to focus on enough of the SRIs to address the full spectrum of school readiness while at the same time not diluting its efforts by trying to address too many of the indicators.
In addition to using the SRIs to guide its funding priorities and the strategies of its grantees and partners toward measurable results, First 5 LA, its research partners (including DPH), and other collaborators have committed to monitoring trends in the SRIs with plans to analyze and disseminate the results every 2 years. The reliance on data from cross-sectional population and administrative sources, and the limitations and bias inherent in such sources, presents a challenge to monitoring the SRIs. For example, changes in how the indicator data are collected could appear as changes in trends or mask important trends when examined over time. Data can also become unavailable due to losses in funding. The SRIs, while not a perfect surveillance tool, provide valuable data and a focus on desired outcomes, which can then be logically linked to programmatic activities and performance measures.
LA County’s positive experience with the SRIs builds on two foundations of public health practice, namely, the core assessment function and practice based on the ecological model. Developing and tracking indicators of school readiness expands the core public health function of assessment — monitoring the health status of populations to identify and address emerging health issues (24) — by collecting and leveraging information to improve health. Notably, the assessment function of the indicators has been promoted at both the county government and grassroots levels as a strategy for more effective leveraging of change.
The NEGP definition of school readiness adopted by the LA County School Readiness Indicators Workgroup represents an ecological perspective on early childhood development and well-being. It includes characteristics of the child and those of the family, community, and school environment that are critical to school readiness at kindergarten entry. Although few public health practitioners would dispute the validity of the ecological model, fostering the cross-sector collaboration necessary to address the multiple layers of the model can be challenging. The case of school readiness is unique in that the concept originated in the early childhood education field but has been studied from a public health perspective as well (1). In LA County, the catalyst for bringing together the multidisciplinary SRI workgroup was the presence of the First 5 LA Commission, a public entity explicitly designed to develop and test the ecological perspective in the early childhood field along with organizations such as the CPC and the DPH, which have historically promoted and valued that model.
The biggest challenge in using the indicators as an accountability tool has been maintaining a clear distinction between contribution and attribution. Tracking indicators and measurable objectives accounts for the contribution of First 5 LA programs toward improving outcomes and in turn helps improve program operations. Attributing impacts to specific funding initiatives requires controlled evaluation methodologies not often feasible in dynamic community settings without valid comparison groups.
Early childhood initiatives have laid the groundwork for similar efforts in other geographic areas (25,26). In Los Angeles we have learned that, given the support of multiple sectors, the ability to leverage local data collection efforts, and a commitment to grass-roots community engagement, social indicators can be a unifying component of a cross-sector focus on supporting positive environments for children during their critical early years.
The authors thank Jacquelyn McCroskey, Professor of Social Work from the University of Southern California School of Social Work for her leadership of the School Readiness Indicator Workgroup and comments on a draft of this paper, and Colleen Mooney, Executive Director, South Bay Center for Counseling Family Support Collaborative, for her contributions to the paper.
In addition to the organizations named in the paper, the following is a partial list of affiliations of the working group members: First 5 LA, the Children’s Planning Council, USC School of Social Work and Annenberg School of Communication; Unite LA, Families in Schools, Child Care Resource Center; The George Washington University and Health Insurance Reform Project; UCLA Center for Improving Child Care Quality, Enterprise Foundation; LA Unified School District; Community Capacity Builders, Child Development Center of San Antonio College; Arcadia Unified School District; LA County Office of Education—Head Start; RAND; Children’s Hospital LA; UCLA School of Public Health; LA County departments of Public Health, Mental Health, Education, Child Care, and Children and Family Services; Lodestar Management and Research; EMT Associates; American Institute for Research; United Way of Greater LA; City of LA Commission for Children, Youth, and Their Families; Public Health Foundation Enterprises—WIC.
Corresponding Author: Cheryl Wold, Wold and Associates, 874 N Holliston Ave, Pasadena, CA 91104. Telephone: 626-798-8021. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ms. Wold was formerly Chief of the Health Assessment Unit in the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services—Public Health.
Author Affiliations: Will Nicholas, Director of Research, The California Endowment, Los Angeles, California. Dr. Nicholas was formerly Senior Research Analyst at First 5 Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California.
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