Education is working--for some, but not all children, especially those growing up in poverty. Families who struggle to meet basic needs are also likely to experience difficulties securing opportunities for high quality education.

Growing up in poverty is one of the greatest threats to healthy child development. It increases the likelihood that a child will be exposed to factors that impair his or her brain development and influence academic, cognitive and health outcomes. Poverty is disproportionately distributed across race and ethnicity.


Children in Poverty (Source: Annie E. Casey Kids Count Data Book, 2018).



Families in poverty are less likely to live in neighborhoods with resource-rich school opportunities and have less time and resources to spend on out-of-school time enrichment activities, such as art, sports, or music. This opportunity deficit compounds over time. In fact, a child’s 3rd or 4th grade reading proficiency can predict later academic and life outcomes, such as graduation in high school or even incarceration.


Children in Poverty (Source: Annie E. Casey Kids Count Data Book, 2018).


The data points to disparities, so what can be done?


We know that education during the early years is a critical time for development, especially for children growing up in families experiencing poverty. Numerous studies have demonstrated that high-quality preschool programs for 3- to 4-year-olds is a game-changer for children in this scenario. For instance, school during the early years helps to set the stage for future skill development, well-being and learning, preparing children to attain higher levels of educational attainment, career advancement and earnings (Kids Count Data Book 2018). Data shows that high quality birth-to-five programs for children growing up in poverty can deliver a 13% per year return on investment realized through better outcomes in education, health, social behaviors and employment.

Yet, 4.3 million kids (ages 3–4) were not attending early childhood educational centers from 2014-2016, representing more than half (52 percent) of all children in that age group (Kids Count Data Book 2018). This is alarming, as children who do not receive formal schooling until kindergarten start a year behind in math and verbal skills and they never catch up (Reardon, 2011). The inequality that begins before kindergarten can last a lifetime.

Percentage of 3-, 4-year-old children enrolled in pre-primary programs

RED: 4 YEAR OLDS | BLUE: 3 YEAR OLDS | 2000 through 2016

NOTE: "Preprimary programs" are groups or classes that are organized to provide educational experiences for children and include kindergarten, preschool, and nursery school programs.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (CPS), October 2000 through 2016. See Digest of Education Statistics 2006, table 41; Digest of Education Statistics 2009, table 43; Digest of Education Statistics 2011, table 53; and Digest of Education Statistics 2013, 2015, 2016, and 2017, table 202.10.


We are at a crossroads. We know that education can work to enhance the livelihoods of young people--but implementing initiatives in communities with diverse preferences and experiences is not a simple feat. Numerous factors that are intangible, such as trust, fear of abuse/neglect/trauma, and discrimination/bias have historically affected all systems and must be understood and respected.


We envision a day when the quality of one’s educational opportunities is not determined by family income, race/ethnicity, language preference, or the neighborhood in which one resides.

Therefore, we engage at the intersection of rigorous research and system sensitive implementation by inviting those who are most affected to help us drive change. This comes from the belief that the only strategy that we can act on is the one in our heads. Often, the strategy is in our heads represents only one part of the system.

Therefore, we use methods of radical listening to learn how rules and structures affect the daily lives of young people and their families. We do this by creating safe spaces for key stakeholders--children, parents/caregivers, educators, foundations, and business and nonprofit professionals--to share their experiences and perspectives and check our collective assumptions.

Insights are paired with rigorous data analysis and system dynamics mapping and computational modeling to co-design system-aware strategies that make explicit the implicit feedback loops, accumulations or drains, and change over time needed to enhance hoped realities.

We believe that the same system that can create inequities in education can be modified or restructured to create rich opportunities for all young people.