This brief reviews results of an Annie E. Casey Foundation sponsored project that challenged local data intermediaries in eight cities (all partners in the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, NNIP) to use their data to promote strengthening of their local school readiness systems. The project showed it was possible to develop rich neighborhood level information on factors affecting early childhood development in all cities and that the effective presentation of such information in reports and public forums did help build momentum for coherence in school readiness initiatives. Particularly valuable were data showing the spatial concentration of early childhood risks in low-income neighborhoods.
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Introduction and Project Description
This brief summarizes the results of a project undertaken by the National Neighborhood
Indicators Partnership (NNIP) to explore approaches to strengthening local school readiness
systems.1 Section 1 provides background information and describes the project. Section 2,
"Lessons from Local Experience," presents the main findings from the work and Section 3 offers
a discussion of implications and recommendations.
There is much to support the view that the achievement of children's reading proficiency by the
third grade should receive much higher priority as a goal of U.S. education policy.2 However, it
is also clear that what happens to children before they enter kindergarten is key to achieving
The past 15 years have seen an explosion of research on early childhood development and
some of the results have been startling.3 That there are sizeable development gaps between
groups defined by race and poverty levels has been known for some time. But a finding that
caught many in the policy community by surprise was that "up to one-half of the gap in
achievement scores in school can be attributed to gaps already evident at the time of school
entry."4 Furthermore, such gaps once established prove very difficult to diminish after school
As might be expected, these findings spurred substantial interest in programs that intervene at
early ages to promote "school readiness." Considerable evidence has been put forward since,
showing that there are such programs (e.g., Nurse-Family Partnerships, Early Head Start) that
work, that is, that can significantly reduce the gaps for many low-income children before
kindergarten and do so in a cost-effective manner.6
Together, these findings have prompted some to advocate for substantially expanding
investment in school readiness. Economist James J. Heckman, for example, considers such
investment to be among the "rare public policy initiatives that promote fairness and social justice
and, at the same time, promote productivity in the economy and society at large."7 He suggests,
"the best way to improve schools is to improve the students sent to them."
It is recognized, however, that school readiness remains an enormous challenge at this point.
While some individual programs have shown great promise, their implementation has been
sporadic to date. Moreover, it is also recognized that full success is likely to require creating a
"system" out of what is now often a fragmented collection of independent services. Advocacy
organizations Zero to Three and Pre-K Now jointly argue that
Any effective approach to building a cohesive, high-quality system must…invest in the
three areas research indicates are critical to later success: early learning, physical and
mental health, and family stability. All children and families need access to
comprehensive and coordinated services.8
In early 2007, seeing the challenge in this way, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Urban
Institute felt that this was an area where the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership
(NNIP) might be able to make a contribution. Coordinated by the Urban Institute, NNIP is a
network of local civic groups and university institutes in 34 cities. All of these local "partners"
operate neighborhood-level data systems and conduct action-oriented research to inform
activities ranging from policymaking to grass-roots community building.
As they have in other areas, it was felt that NNIP partners might be able to bring information to
bear on the school readiness issue in a way that would promote more strategic and coordinated
action by the variety of local actors involved. This was considered particularly relevant in this
case since it is widely believed that children facing the most severe risks to school readiness
are often concentrated in comparatively small number of neighborhoods in each metropolitan
area. Good data on the spatial pattern of both risks and service deployment could be
instrumental to sound planning for the system overall.
(End of excerpt. The full brief is available in PDF format.)
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