How do you mainstream a successful early child development program when those who have to pay for it are not those who save money when it successfully reduces problems for children later down the line? This problem defeats many programs to assist early child development, even if they show very positive results in pilots.

In the US Midwest around Chicago, a comprehensive experiment is under way to take a program that improves school achievement among three- to nine-year-olds into the mainstream at a much larger scale.

The Midwest Child-Parent Center (CPC) Expansion program aims to improve school achievement with parent support. It is delivered inside schools or in centers very close by. Hallmarks of the program include extra teachers, reduced class sizes and increased learning time for children.

Evaluations have shown that at a smaller scale, the program has a significant impact on children – increasing school readiness, reading and math achievement, and rates of school achievement, and reducing special education placement, juvenile arrest, delinquency, and the need for remedial services.

To mainstream the program, it has been carefully structured in a number of ways.

Shared ownership and collective leadership

Responsibility for the program is distributed among interested parties. Local program organisers work under the leadership of the elementary school principal. All teachers and children in the schools are involved. Parents and grandparents agree to be involved for 2.5 hours a week and are presented with a menu of options about how to participate; they also complete a needs assessment. Each site has a room to host events and activities involving parents.

Financing

Under a “Pay for Success” system, private partners and philanthropic organisations invest in the program, and schools and counties repay them only if the program produces proven savings for them.

Integrating preschool and elementary school systems

The learning curriculum is closely aligned with what the school is already teaching, with a strong focus on continuity from year to year for the children and their families.

Strong professional development

All those involved in delivering the program are given substantial continuing support.

Careful monitoring of delivery

A key challenge of mainstreaming is poor implementation of a program across sites and time. Program fidelity—that is, the degree to which the expanded program follows guidelines for implementation and delivery—is carefully monitored and reported. The roll-out has so far been achieving high rates of fidelity: 80% of sites have achieved the required fidelity standard.

The mainstreaming process has already shown positive outcomes for school readiness and parent participation, though it still has far to go. The hope is that it will demonstrate successful techniques to achieve the vital transition from pilot to mainstream that are so often absent.

Header photo: César Astudillo. Creative Commons.

References

Reynolds AJ, Hayakawa M, Ou S-R, Mondi CF, Englund MM, Candee AJ & Smerillo NE (2017), Scaling and sustaining effective early childhood programs through school-family-university collaboration, Child Development 88.5