Are We Doing Enough To Create High-Quality Early Learning Opportunities?

February 9, 2016

A New Study by Child Trends Highlights Strengths and Challenges of Local Efforts to Support Early Care and Education Centers on the Path to Quality

PHILADELPHIA—Currently, only 15% of the nearly 100,000 early care and education seats in Philadelphia are known to be high-quality. With a significant gap still remaining in high-quality seats, efforts are underway to improve access to high-quality early childhood education in Philadelphia. One of the programs helping child care centers on this quest to attain and sustain high-quality is United Way’s Success By 6® (SB6). Today, Child Trends, a nationally-recognized research organization focused on improving outcomes for children, released a new study to identify ways to improve program quality so that more of Philadelphia’s children can start on a path toward successful futures.

This study, which was conducted with funding from the William Penn Foundation, provides guidance to those in the Philadelphia area and beyond who are wrestling with how to support many early childhood program providers as they strive to achieve higher levels of quality. This will be critically important as Philadelphia’s new mayor has said that the City will embark on a major expansion of high-quality early care and education. To realize this vision, improving the quality of existing centers will be essential. Tomorrow, this report will serve as the basis of an early education convening at the Free Library of Philadelphia hosted by William Penn Foundation as part of its Quality Talks series. To read the full report, visit

“Improving the quality of early care and education benefits our youngest children and their families, but we have surprisingly little research about what works, especially in large, diverse regions like Philadelphia,” said Kathryn Tout, Co-Director of Early Childhood Research at Child Trends. “The Success By 6 evaluation findings contribute new information about the strategies that can support early care and education centers in the challenging process of making improvements that can be sustained over time.”

Research shows that high-quality early learning opportunities are strongly associated with positive developmental outcomes in children, and efforts to increase access to high-quality programs are particularly important for low-income families. The percentage of 4-year-olds with proficient academic and social skills more than tripled after participating in PA Pre-K Counts programs, a state program to support high quality early education for children at risk of academic difficulty. Yet, knowing that these high-quality programs make a difference, currently only about 15 percent of spaces in Philadelphia’s early childhood programs are known to be of high-quality, as measured by Keystone STARS, Pennsylvania’s statewide system for rating and improving program quality.

“We know from School District data that high-quality programs are better preparing children for kindergarten. For example, students involved in one of the District’s high quality programs were 23 percentage points more likely to enter kindergarten reading at grade level compared to those children who were not in a high quality program,” said Elliot Weinbaum, Great Learning Program Director at the William Penn Foundation. “That means that children are coming to school ready to learn and progress. Our aim with this research is to better understand how we as a community can help all programs to provide the level of quality programming that will yield similar levels of success.”

SB6 was launched by United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey (UWGPSNJ) in 2007 to provide resources to help improve quality among early learning centers in the region. The 18 to 24 month program provides centers with intensive technical support, programmatic improvement funds, and other resources to help improve quality as measured by Keystone STARS. With data from 368 participating SB6 centers, and discussions pending about the expansion of high-quality pre-k and the evolution of Keystone STARS, it is the ideal time to evaluate the program’s efficacy.

The report, entitled Improving Quality for Child Care Centers in Greater Philadelphia: An Evaluation of Success By 6, developed a series of key findings and recommendations aimed at informing dialogue about quality improvement practices regionally and nationally. The study, which is the focus of the third in a series of four early education convenings hosted by the William Penn Foundation, identifies key findings including those highlighted below:

  • Participating centers advance or ‘move up’ in STAR ratings at a higher rate than their non-participating counterparts. The comparative analysis of participating versus non-participating centers shows that those in the SB6 program are benefiting from participation; SB6 centers move up in STARS at a higher rate (45 percent) than a matched comparison group (29 percent) of centers. The findings demonstrate that SB6 provides a 16 point “move up” boost to participating centers. Despite the added value provided by the program, further supports are needed to increase the percent of centers earning higher STAR ratings in future years. In addition to the challenges of improving program quality, it appears that the availability of highly trained and certified staff members poses one of the largest challenges to advancement in the STARS system.
  • Financial incentives are an important component of a quality improvement initiative. SB6 provides valuable financial incentives to support improvement. The funds are used primarily to support the purchase of classroom materials and make some facility improvements. Because quality improvement funds in SB6 are packaged together with other supports such as consultation, it is impossible to isolate the effectiveness of financial incentives in improving classroom quality. However, nearly all directors agree that the funds are a critical tool in their quality improvement. This finding is not surprising in light of other research demonstrating the very tight financial margins of early childhood education providers in the Philadelphia area.
  • SB6 mirrors many national best practices in quality improvement and can serve as strong national model. Monitoring and flexibility, collaboration of multiple partners, and coordination with state and local officials are keys to the program’s success. As the experience levels, salaries, and education levels of center staffs have changed over the years, improvement initiatives such as SB6 must be in a position to meet those evolving contexts and needs. Improved technology and information infrastructure will be an area for development in order to support these adjustments.

“At United Way, we believe that quality early learning experiences have the power to change the trajectory of a child’s life, but we also know that only one in five children in southeastern Pennsylvania has access to high-quality, publicly funded early education,” said Jim Cawley, President and CEO of UWGPSNJ. “For nearly 20 years, we have put high-quality early education within reach for more children and families from underserved neighborhoods, which would not be possible without the generosity of funders like the William Penn Foundation and our individual and corporate donors, the support of our partners from DVAEYC, MELC and St. Joseph’s University, and the dedication of hundreds of early childhood center directors and educators.”


About the William Penn Foundation

The William Penn Foundation, founded in 1945 by Otto and Phoebe Haas, is dedicated to improving the quality of life in the Greater Philadelphia region through efforts that increase educational opportunities for children from low-income families, ensure a sustainable environment, foster creativity that enhances civic life, and advance philanthropy in the Philadelphia region. In partnership with others, the Foundation works to advance opportunity, ensure sustainability, and enable effective solutions. Since inception, the Foundation has made nearly 10,000 grants totaling over $1.6 billion. The Foundation’s assets totaled approximately $2.3 billion as of December 31, 2015.

About Child Trends

Child Trends is the nation’s leading nonprofit research organization focused exclusively on improving the lives and prospects of children, youth, and their families. For 36 years, decision makers have relied on our rigorous research, unbiased analyses, and clear communications to improve public policies and interventions that serve children and families. We have more than 120 staff in three offices and multiple locations around the country, including our headquarters in Bethesda, Md. Our mission is to improve the lives and prospects of children and youth by conducting high-quality research and sharing the resulting knowledge with practitioners and policymakers.

About United Way of Greater Philadelphia and South Jersey

United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, serving communities in Pennsylvania’s Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties, and New Jersey’s Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May and Cumberland counties, is part of a national network of more than 1,300 locally governed organizations that work to create lasting positive changes in communities and in people’s lives. United Way engages the community to identify the underlying causes of the most significant local issues, develops strategies and pulls together financial and human resources to address them, and measures the results. United Way is advancing the common good in Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey by positively impacting the lives of people throughout the region in the areas of education, financial stability and health.