Helping First 5 Show System-Level Impact

In the last few years we have seen a lot of our clients in the early childhood field change their approach to making program and funding decisions. Many organizations are shifting from activities to outcomes as a basis for funding and programming decisions. Without a doubt, this is a positive development. But a lot of work remains to create accurate, timely outcome measures in this field. In the meantime, there are useful measures that reflect how systems can drive improvements, and many of California’s First 5 Commissions are leading the way. Through an invitation from the First 5 Association of California, we recently had an opportunity to strategize with leaders across the state about how we can add these measures to start understanding statewide impact.

California has 58 individual First 5 commissions: one for each county. The First 5 commissions are public agencies mandated by the State to create comprehensive, collaborative systems to enhance early child development and school readiness. Each year, the First 5 Association of California brings together staff from the 58 First 5 commissions to learn from each other and chart a common agenda to promote the development of California’s youngest children and their families. For this year’s convening, Harder+Company was invited to share insights and explore opportunities for documenting First 5’s impact statewide.

During this session, we presented alongside colleagues from Applied Survey Research and Children’s Data Network. Our shared focus was: How can the 58 First 5 commissions align around common indicators of program, systems and population impact? Harder+Company’s presentation focused on the power of looking at systems measures—especially those related to program quality and access to services, among other things—for showing long-term impact. We also shared how these measures fit into the conversation about common indicators and why they are important to track. We showed how these measures are already benefiting initiatives spanning multiple counties in California including early evaluations we have conducted on behalf of Help Me Grow California (a national model to promote early detection of developmental or behavioral concerns and intervention) and Quality Rating Improvement Systems in the Bay Area.

Systems measures are not the sole answer here. We acknowledge the need to examine more short-term changes in parent development, child health, and school readiness—and the need to link them to longer-range outcomes like third-grade reading, school attendance, and high school graduation. Doing so will require sorting through a series of technical issues stemming from service variation, local flexibility and local implementation. At the same time, focusing on systems measures provides the First 5 commissions with an opportunity to track indicators that are directly aligned with their original mandate: improving early childhood outcomes by creating integrated, comprehensive and collaboration systems.

During the workshop, First 5 staff discussed ways to create consistent measures across the state. Workshop participants agreed on the importance of telling two stories – the one that documents impacts on children and families, and another that describes the often untold but important systems change story. In addition to telling a statewide story, some participants wanted to understand how systems measures could help them document their local systems change efforts. Workshop participants spent time in small groups identifying an initial set of program indicators to be tracked across counties.

The next step will be maintaining the momentum.

This is an opportunity to look at different models from philanthropy to help tell the systems story. One option could be to conduct a retrospective evaluation that documents systems change efforts and spotlighting “proof points,” looking at how counties have flexibly used First 5 funding to design delivery systems that meet the needs of local populations.

We look forward to continuing to work with our current clients and our evaluation colleagues to brainstorm ways to help tell the First 5 story.