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Elizabeth Burke Bryant and Catherine Walsh, of Rhode Island Kids Count, report on the progress of an initiative to compile school readiness indicators in 17 states.

During the past several years, state policymakers have increasingly focused on the school readiness of young children as a public policy goal essential for improving outcomes for children. In a time of decreasing revenues and higher stakes for student achievement, how will governors, legislators, and other policymakers know whether their investments are making a difference in terms of preparing our youngest citizens for school?

Indicators are one tool for achieving public policy change. The most powerful sets of indicators combine child outcomes indicators in all areas of development (physical, cognitive, social, and emotional) with systems indicators that monitor the capacity of programs to meet the variety of needs across communities. Regular reporting and tracking of indicators can help state policymakers and opinion leaders identify areas needing intervention and justify investments in programs and policies.

However, the nation lacks a comprehensive set of indicators that measure child well-being during the early childhood years and the years of transition from early childhood to elementary school (from birth to age 8). To address this problem, in October 2001 the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation formed a funding partnership to launch an initiative, called School Readiness Indicators: Making Progress for Young Children, to create a national set of school readiness indicators.

Rhode Island Example:
Results of Indicator Tracking

Rhode Island began tracking child well-being indicators several years ago. The state found that an alarmingly high percentage of children were entering kindergarten with elevated levels of lead in their bloodstreams. As a result, a comprehensive community-wide effort was launched to enhance lead poisoning prevention, screening, and treatment. The new policies and programs have lead to a dramatic decrease in childhood lead poisoning.

Rhode Island's indicator trends also showed that the number of licensed child care slots in the state would be insufficient to accommodate even a fraction of the young children of parents making the transition from welfare to work. Annual tracking statewide and for every city and town resulted in a significant increase in state funding for child care.

Rhode Island Kids Count, based in Providence, Rhode Island, has overall management of the initiative. The 17 participating states include Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Each state's participating team includes representatives from the public and private sectors: the governor or first lady; legislators; heads of the Departments of Education, Health, and Social Services; business and civic leaders; child advocates; and researchers.

The initiative has three goals:

  1. Identify a set of measurable indicators defining school readiness that can be tracked regularly over time at the state and local levels.
  2. Have states adopt this indicators-based definition of school readiness, fill in the gaps in data availability, track data over time, and report findings to their citizens.
  3. Stimulate policy, program, and other actions to improve the ability of all children to read at grade level by the end of third grade.

The policy assistance portion of the initiative, the State Early Childhood Policy and Technical Assistance Network (SECPTAN), created to link indicators with potential policies, is managed by Charles Bruner, executive director of the Child and Family Policy Center in Des Moines, Iowa. State teams receive ongoing technical assistance from both Rhode Island Kids Count and SECPTAN to identify, track, and use indicators to influence policies for young children. Indicators are selected based on each state's political, social, and economic context. In addition, there is an emphasis on paying attention to what Mark Friedman refers to as the communications power of indicators.¹ The idea is to ensure that indicators can be easily communicated and that they reflect what truly matters for school readiness.

In May of this year the state teams presented their final set of school readiness indicators, monitoring plans, and communication products for disseminating the indicators. During the remainder of 2004, Rhode Island Kids Count and a team of technical advisors will look across the state lists to identify a core set of school readiness indicators. The core set will represent indicators most commonly identified, along with measures and tracking plans.

Nonparticipating states will be able to benefit from this initiative by using this core set of indicators as a starting point for their own lists rather than starting from scratch. In addition, the core set of indicators, if adopted by the majority of states, can serve as the beginning of a national definition and accountability system for school readiness.

For further information on this initiative visit

¹ Friedman, M. A. (1997). Guide to developing and using performance measures in results-based budgeting. Washington, DC: The Finance Project.

Elizabeth Burke Bryant
Executive Director

Catherine B. Walsh
Deputy Director

Rhode Island Kids Count
One Union Station
Providence, RI 02903
Tel: 401-351-9400

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© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project