Four Lessons in Early Learning in Washington State

We know that the period from birth to age is five is critical for a child’s healthy development and learning. All the evidence shows that high-quality learning experiences in the earliest years pays dividends in social, emotional, and cognitive development throughout a child’s lifetime.

The clear value of early childhood education has driven the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts to ensure all families have access to quality pre-K, beginning in our home state of Washington.

Over the past fifteen years, with our partners we have sought to shift the paradigm by committing to quality, building advocacy capacity, funding research, and filling in gaps in state data and measurement systems — investing a total of over $150 million.

We’ve learned powerful lessons about how philanthropy can partner with policymakers, teachers and caregivers, parents, researchers, and advocates to drive progress in quality and access. The historic lookback is uplifting because we have come so far and, given lessons learned, we can accelerate progress going forward.

Build better systems

Building a comprehensive and effective early learning system takes bold vision and substantial funding. While no philanthropic effort can do it alone, foundations can play a critical role in spurring efforts to advance progress. In early 2006, the Gates Foundation, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, and public and private partners came together to form Thrive by Five Washington (which became Thrive Washington and will soon become the Ounce of Prevention Fund) — a powerful collaboration that coordinated investments around early learning, piloted the state’s first QRIS (Quality Rating and Improvement System, called Early Achievers), and advanced early learning statewide.

In 2011, the Gates Foundation helped the state apply for a Race to the Top federal grant that supported implementation of the QRIS. The foundation also provided funding to help develop the state’s kindergarten-readiness assessment and the quality rating data system, in partnership with Cultivate Learning at the University of Washington. While these systems will need continued resources and regular updates to ensure all Washington children are kindergarten-ready, their strong start helped our state become a model for building a quality, data-informed early education infrastructure.

Invest in advocacy

A strong, coordinated advocacy coalition is essential to drive investments in quality early learning. With the Children’s Alliance as coalition manager, the Early Learning Action Alliance brought together a diverse group of voices and organizations to build connections with lawmakers and advance policies that support more and better early learning opportunities for every child.

Thanks to the strength and lasting power of these advocacy partners, the importance of Early Achievers as a driver of quality and a professional development opportunity is clear to pre-K providers, businesses, philanthropies, and policymakers — who have, and should continue, to provide resources for the program.

Explain why research matters

Research and evidence can have a profound effect on advancing effective policy — but it has to be understandable to both policymakers and parents. In a move that would help inform the foundation and shape the early education field, the Gates Foundation partnered with Jim Minervino, founder of early education nonprofit Ready on Day One, to summarize key research on the quality and sustainability of effective pre-K programs. Jim surveyed state and city pre-K programs and found four that are getting real results for kids. He found that quality matters unequivocally — that high-quality programs not only boost kindergarten readiness, but positively impact a child’s life long-term — and that low-quality programs are not only less effective, but can actually cause harm.

READ: This is What We Mean By Quality in Pre-K (Marquita Davis, Gates Foundation Deputy Director of Early Learning)

The report was written clearly and in everyday language, expanding its influence among policymakers and businesspeople, and has since been validated by the independent advocacy group New America. Indeed, Ross Hunter, a former lawmaker and current Secretary of the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) remarked, “The Minervino report was the most lucid presentation of what worked and what didn’t work, and how to think about solving the problem, of anything I read.”

Focus on the future

The movement that emerged in Washington was bigger than any one funder, and it successfully increased quality and access in places ranging from the voter-approved pre-K in Seattle to Bellingham Public Schools to The Salish School of Spokane.

We keep these lessons in mind as we move forward with effective and actionable strategies to support and prepare our earliest learners — now in several states across the U.S. And we keep building on the work in Washington, improving quality in early learning, driving toward equity by closing opportunity gaps, and ensuring all children are ready to succeed in kindergarten and beyond.

Read the full case study examining Washington State’s path towards high-quality early learning: In Pursuit of Quality: A Case Study of Early Learning in Washington State.