Redefining pre-K success during COVID through outcomes-based financing

A conversation with Kandace Thomas of First 8 Memphis

preschool children gather around a table.
Editor's note:

This blog is part of a “Voices from the Field” series on impact bonds, which will feature guest contributions from stakeholders directly involved in projects around the world.

In 2019, the city of Memphis, Shelby County, First 8 Memphis, the Urban Child Institute, and the Community Outcomes Fund at Maycomb Capital launched a public-private partnership. The partnership utilizes outcomes-based financing to enable the city and county government to align their funds with outcomes in the community, in particular helping to ensure that pre-K students are on track and on grade level when they head into kindergarten. The near-term goal of the partnership is to expand high-quality pre-K to every low-income child in Shelby County, Tennessee, and the long-term objective is kindergarten readiness and future educational success for every child.

I recently spoke with Dr. Kandace Thomas, whom I have come to know as a close collaborator and partner, about the importance of early childhood education, and the unique challenges this project has faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Thomas is a leader in child development with a focus on children’s social and emotional well-being. She is the executive director of First 8, an organization founded to integrate best practices that support at-risk children from birth through age 8 to provide the building blocks of cognitive, behavioral, and social skills, and ultimately the basis for long-term success.

Kandace Thomas

Q: This year marks the third year of this project together. Dr. Thomas, let’s start with the big picture. Can you share a little bit about why pre-K matters?

Kandace Thomas (KT): Pre-K is such a necessary learning experience to help young children establish the cornerstones of lifelong learning. Pre-K also provides the opportunity for students to become accustomed to a school environment by interacting with teachers and classmates, practicing listening skills, and practicing self-regulation skills.

In Shelby County, approximately 45 percent of children live in poverty, and we know the benefits of pre-K are even more vital in historically oppressed communities. Unfortunately, there are many, many more students that need pre-K services than there are seats available; in 2019, when this program began, 1,000 pre-K seats were set to disappear due to an expiring federal grant.

Q: The pandemic brought so much uncertainty to the world. How were you able to continue providing services to children and their families during this unprecedented time?

KT: The school year was about 75 percent complete in March 2020, when the city of Memphis and the Shelby County school system, including all 67 First 8 pre-K classrooms, closed to in-person learning.

With no idea of how long the virus or its effects would last, we knew we needed to transform and refocus our goals and outcomes. Our concerns were not only around how children would access learning online, but also how to meet children’s and families’ immediate needs.

I’m confident that our students ended up in a better place than they would have had we not set clear benchmarks and put in place an accountability framework through our outcomes-based financing structure.

In-person schooling transitioned to Zoom classrooms, while paper instruction packets and food bundles became available for pickup. Family social service providers kept in contact with families through email and phone calls, offering support and guidance on keeping children safe and engaged during those initial weeks.

Q: How did you begin to approach the 2020-2021 school year?

KT: When we realized that COVID was going to be a longer-term issue than we had anticipated, we came back to the table to define success during COVID and identify the metrics we could use to hold ourselves accountable to the families and students.

Our primary goal of improving early literacy skills was critical and we needed to stick with that. But we also needed to help families meet their basic needs while focusing on social-emotional development. We worked with the pre-K providers to implement new assessments that could help provide insight into our pre-K students’ progress. And our family support and engagement metrics helped to ensure that families had access to food banks, health care, housing, mental health, and other services.

Q: So, how did the 2020-2021 school year go in the end? 

KT: The public-private partnership was a driving force to think critically about how we could do right by our pre-K students, and keep them and their families engaged despite the barriers. As a result, I’m confident that our students ended up in a better place than they would have had we not set clear benchmarks and put in place an accountability framework through our outcomes-based financing structure.

When it came to consistent attendance—a strong leading indicator of success that we had measured in year one—we knew we couldn’t use the metric of a student physically in the classroom to assess engagement. We expanded our metric to focus more holistically on consistent engagement; that includes teachers offering synchronous instruction and asynchronous instruction, students signing on and participating in lessons, and families meeting with family service workers.

Collectively, we knew we had to maintain our focus on skills growth and kindergarten readiness even though the context in which we were operating had changed dramatically. The tools we used to assess improved pre-K skills were expanded to include skills growth beyond literacy, which reflects current best practices. These skills are the building blocks of long-term success and a strong indicator of kindergarten readiness—the overarching goal of First 8.

Data nationally have shown significant learning loss due to the absence of in-person learning. Given that, we’re incredibly proud that early data are showing strong skills and kindergarten readiness for our pre-K students.

Q: Do you think the events of the past year and a half will cause a shift in how we look at education?

KT: I am certainly hopeful! Locally, we are hoping to maintain an outcomes-orientation across all our work because we’ve seen how data and active performance management can help drive better results. We at First 8 Memphis are lucky to have had leadership in our community that is in many ways ahead of the curve, which has enabled us to create a model for outcomes-driven pre-K services in our county. These successes belong to the community—teachers, administrators, family service workers, and coaches. They have all contributed to how well we did during the pandemic, and we celebrate these achievements.

More broadly, President Biden’s proposed spending plan to support high-poverty schools and expand universal pre-K access demonstrates the widespread understanding by policymakers and community leaders alike that early education matters, especially for historically excluded families and those families experiencing poverty, which I think has only been underscored by the experience of this pandemic.

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