The Early Childhood Iowa, "We are ECI" Strategic Plan 2019-2022 was informed by a comprehensive needs assessment process that engaged stakeholders from across our early childhood system, including partners in state government, local boards, communities, and families. We engaged diverse stakeholders to identify gaps in early childhood system supports, services, communication strategies, and opportunities for service improvement. Our vision for Iowa's children is for, "Every child, beginning at birth, will be healthy and successful."
Acknowledgements, citation & contact page
Early Childhood Iowa acknowledges the contributions of the hundreds of stakeholders who volunteered their time and efforts to assist in developing the “We Are ECI: Strategic Plan 2019-2022.” Because the plan is built on a comprehensive needs assessment process, we further acknowledge the individuals who completed surveys, participated in focus groups, joined data dive discussions, and provided additional input into the process.
This publication was made possible by the Preschool Development Grant Birth to Five (Grant Number 90TP0030-01-00) from the Office of Child Care, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as part of a grant totaling $2,190,119 with 0% financed with non-governmental sources. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Office of Child Care, the Administration for Children and Families, or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Questions about this report may be directed to:
Iowa Department of Management
Office of Early Childhood Iowa
State Capitol, Room 13
Des Moines, IA 50319
Intro letter of support:
To All Early Childhood Stakeholders:
The Early Childhood Iowa State Board is proud to support the “We Are ECI: Strategic Plan for 2019-2022”. The development of this strategic plan reflects the evolving partnerships and collaborative efforts to strengthen Iowa’s early childhood system.
Fifteen citizens from across the state; the Iowa Departments of Education (IDE), Human Services (DHS), Public Health (IDPH), Human Rights (DHR), Workforce Development (IWD), and Management (DOM); the Iowa Economic Development Authority; and four legislators serve on the ECI State Board. We are committed to the utilization of this strategic plan to promote strategies for improving outcomes for young children and their families.
We appreciate the efforts of the many individuals and organizations who participated in developing the Early Childhood Needs Assessment and the “We Are ECI” Strategic Plan. This endeavor presents a logical acceleration of our intentional efforts toward early childhood program coordination among state and local partners on behalf of young children and their families. Because of these efforts, Iowa is moving closer to achieve the vision, "Every child, beginning at birth, will be healthy and successful.”
We recognize that we cannot achieve this vision alone. Only when we work in coordination, with clear priorities for strategic action, can we capitalize on our collective expertise as leaders, practitioners, families, and community members. We Are ECI. We support a coordinated, mixed delivery system throughout the statewide strategic plan that routinely builds on our successes and addresses our challenges. Our goal is that, through our mixed delivery system, high quality early childhood efforts will promote lifelong health, academic, and economic success.
The development, expansion and sustainability of our implementation efforts must be data-informed, and we appreciate the efforts to create and share integrated data that grant funding from the Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five provided. This plan reflects significant areas of current strength in Iowa that will be enhanced with the strategies and activities that follow, as well as specific opportunities to address gaps.
ECI State Board Chair
“We Are ECI” is informed by a comprehensive needs assessment process that engaged stakeholders from across our early childhood system, including partners in state government, local boards, communities, and families. We reviewed prior systems development work and needs assessments. We used an integrated data system to count the number of children served. We further identified gaps in services for vulnerable and underserved children. We conducted family surveys, early childhood provider surveys, and focus groups with families and early childhood providers.
We engaged diverse stakeholders to identify gaps in early childhood system supports, services, communication strategies, and opportunities for service improvement. Our learning process engaged stakeholders in focused learning sessions to digest, discuss, and determine our system’s highest priority in order to actualize our vision.
Our 2019 needs assessment highlighted both strengths and challenges for our early childhood system. Its key findings revealed:
- Gaps in services for minority and low-income children, those born with birth risks or with certain maternal characteristics, and families with children with disabilities
- A deepened awareness and understanding of rural child care deserts by providing additional information about the nature and extent of access problems, including extensive waiting lists and inadequate information to help families connect with available services
- Staffing shortages faced by licensed child care centers that are operating under capacity
- A range of challenges providers face related to facilities
- Existing local partnerships where programs have coordinated, shared resources, and/or created mechanisms to better facilitate family transitions
- The need to work further to systemically partner by understanding how successful partnerships are built and how we could support new or struggling relationships
- Additional gaps in our overall system infrastructure and communications strategies with stakeholders at all levels wanting more detailed information about how our early childhood system works and the role of ECI
- The need to systematically incorporate ongoing data-based learning sessions and trainings that provide more accessible data about families and services for partners
The 2019 needs assessment findings were discussed in strategic planning sessions with ECI stakeholders including community members, families, program directors, executive leaders, and providers. Iowa’s 2019-2022 strategic plan, “We Are ECI,” outlines the culmination of these efforts into a streamlined set of 5 overarching systems goals and 13 targeted strategies that will support improved coordination, family engagement and access, and program quality across the birth-to-five mixed delivery system. These goals emphasize systematic improvements in (1) overall system infrastructure, (2) comprehensive communications, (3) workforce development, (4) equitable access, and (5) quality programs. The strategies within each goal support our belief that all Iowa citizens benefit from and are a part of Early Childhood Iowa.
Comprehensive systems coordination to support healthy growth and development of children, families, and communities requires complex and strategic actions that deliberately incorporate roles and responsibilities of all citizens, and “We are ECI” provides the roadmap Iowa needs to move closer to ensuring ECI’s vision that “Every child, beginning at birth, will be healthy and successful.”
Goals at a Glance:
- Goal 1: Promote a coordinated infrastructure to advance the early childhood system.
- Strategy 1.1: Expand collaboration and coordination among state and local programs and agencies serving young children and their families.
- Strategy 1.2: Develop and nurture effective public-private partnerships at a state and local level.
- Strategy 1.3: Infuse data-based discussions and decision-making processes throughout the early childhood system.
- Goal 2: Build public will for investing in young children and their families.
- Strategy 2.1: Communicate the value of The First 2,000 Days as the most critical stage of the human lifecycle.
- Strategy 2.2: Partner with families and communities to improve communication about what young children and families need and how the system responds.
- Strategy 2.3: Engage families as leaders and advocates for a comprehensive early childhood system.
- Goal 3: Transform the early childhood workforce through formal education, greater professionalism, increased skills and competence, and new approaches to implementing best practices.
- Strategy 3.1: Create a larger, more skilled early childhood workforce.
- Strategy 3.2: Provide new or expanded early childhood workforce supports to enhance the quality of early childhood programs and services.
- Goal 4: Ensure that young children and families receive the services they need when they need them.
- Strategy 4.1: Improve equitable access to early learning opportunities and services for vulnerable and underserved children and families.
- Strategy 4.2: Expand and improve access to high quality early learning opportunities and services for young children and their families.
- Strategy 4.3: Improve transitions among early childhood programs and between the early childhood and K-12 education systems.
- Goal 5: Improve the quality of early childhood services for young children and their families across early care and education; health, mental health, and nutrition; and family support services.
- Strategy 5.1: Promote and incentivize the use of evidence-based programs and services across the early childhood system.
- Strategy 5.2: Adopt a collective impact approach to investing in high-quality, evidence-based services, programs and activities across the early childhood system.
These are the central beliefs that guide our approach to analyzing our needs assessment data and defining the goals and strategies included in this plan.
Children and Families are Our “North Star”
Family voices are central to determining our plan, identifying its priorities and strategies, and deciding how to carry out our work. Effective partnerships with families allow us to truly understand needs and how best to address them. Further, the voices of all families must be heard, not just those our system serves.
The decisions we make about what services to provide, when, and for whom are grounded in the science of brain development. A child’s brain develops rapidly in the first three years of life, and ninety percent of the brain’s architecture is developed by the age of 5. Research shows that early childhood experiences and relationships shape the architecture of the brain, and high-quality care produces long-lasting, positive outcomes for children.
We embrace the mantra of “not about us without us” as we work toward equity within the early childhood system. We commit to shared leadership with communities of color and other underserved and underrepresented groups to work toward equitable access and outcomes for all children and families in our state. Our vision includes “every child” which requires us to examine data for disparities by race, ethnicity, family income, geographic area, language, culture, different-abledness and other distinguishing characteristics in analyzing problems, identifying solutions and defining success.
We cannot do this work alone. We will engage families and community members throughout the process, learning in partnership as we go. We recognize that our goals and proposed actions require the input, expertise, and collaboration of multiple partners within and across our comprehensive early childhood system. Partners enter the work together as equals committed to a shared purpose.
Data is a Valuable Resource
We maintain high standards for data ethics while acknowledging that decision-making is more relevant and effective when we have better access to information. We commit to using data in service of the public good – to support Iowa’s children and families.
We will set bold, clear priorities for action, and we will do what we say we will do. We hold ourselves accountable for measurable action on the goals of this plan. We commit to transparency and inclusion throughout all phases of our work.
The Early Childhood Iowa Initiative
Iowa has a long and rich history of investing in young children and their families – a recognition of the impact early experiences have on health and success in school work, and in life overall. Spurred by research on the importance of the first three years of life, in 1998, the Iowa legislature created Iowa Community Empowerment. This law provided funding for early childhood services, with annual increases over several years. Local area boards covering all 99 counties were eligible to receive this funding and use it to support a range of services for children up to age five and their families. The law also created a state board (similar to a Children’s Cabinet but with citizen and legislative members) to provide oversight through strategic planning, funding identification, guidance, tracking, and reporting on results.
Iowa also formed the Stakeholder Alliance, a public-private group that focused on early childhood system development, including governance, planning and administration, results accountability, professional development, quality services and programs, public engagement, and resources and finance. The Stakeholder Alliance was originally formed under an Early Childhood Comprehensive Systems grant and began within our Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH). Later, in 2009, it was designated the Early Childhood Advisory Council as promoted by the Head Start Act of 2007. As our system coordination matured, the Stakeholder Alliance structure added component groups to represent the key areas of work. This structure provides organizational support and capacity for cross-system teams to implement the work of this forthcoming strategic plan.
In 2010, the Iowa Legislature passed additional legislation designating Early Childhood Iowa as an umbrella for the local area boards (of which there are 38 at present), the state board, and the Stakeholders Alliance and clarifying their purpose and functions in Iowa’s early childhood system. The law directed that the same vision, result areas, and strategic plan be used throughout the entire system, ensuring coordination of efforts – a critical step for our system to address the needs of young children and their families.
In 2013, capitalizing on funding and support provided by the Early Childhood Advisory Council Grant, Early Childhood Iowa conducted a needs assessment and adopted its first joint strategic plan since the 2010 merger language to improve outcomes for young children and families. The plan began with a needs assessment using publicly available data to identify strategic priorities related to system infrastructure, equitable access to high quality services, and building public support for a comprehensive early childhood system. With updates to the plan completed in 2016 and again in 2018-2019, we welcomed the support of the Preschool Development Grant in January 2019 as an opportunity on which to build and enhance our prior efforts.
The Preschool Development Grant also provided an opportunity to accelerate the development of an Integrated Data System for use in a longitudinal cohort study integrating administrative data from public education, health, and human services systems. This study provided the foundation for our comprehensive needs assessment and informed the strategic plan that follows. Combined, these efforts allowed us to expand stakeholder engagement, fill gaps in the existing needs assessment with new data, and inform an enhanced strategic plan driven toward systematic change.
Our Approach to Strategic Planning
Our commitment to thoughtful, inclusive stakeholder engagement served as the foundation for all planning efforts throughout the summer of 2019.
Iowa’s strategic planning process was accomplished in tiered phases, with each phase engaging an ever-broader cross-section of stakeholders from Iowa’s early childhood system. We describe each phase in detail below.
We established a “Core Team” to facilitate our system strategic planning efforts, which includes representatives from Iowa’s Department of Human Services, Department of Management/ECI, Department of Education, the Head Start State Collaboration Office, the Iowa Association for the Education of Young Children, Iowa State University, and the Department of Human Rights.
As a team, we began with intentional pre-planning activities to identify a thoughtful strategic planning process, prioritizing addressing the needs of vulnerable and underserved children and families.
At the May Stakeholder’s Alliance meeting, we previewed our overall process and approach to strategic planning to stakeholders representing the main sectors of the early childhood system (health, mental health and nutrition; early learning; and family support). Leaders from our early childhood system further vetted the process and approach at our Steering Committee meeting on June 6.
Phase I: System Learning
Stakeholders representing Iowa’s early childhood system attended two day-long learning sessions where findings from the 2019 needs assessment were presented and discussed across the following topics:
1) Who are the children 0-5 in Iowa
2) Underserved and vulnerable populations
3) Access to care
4) Quality of early care and
5) Workforce and professional development
Stakeholders also engaged in a preliminary, high-level review of goal statements from the strategic plan adopted in January 2019. At the conclusion of each day, attendees provided feedback on the structure and overall outcomes for each of the learning sessions. Their evaluations, reflections, and insights helped shape the approach for the following phase.
Phase II: Identifying Strategic Priorities
Building on the rich conversations begun in Phase I, 36 stakeholders, many of whom attended the July learning sessions, participated in a day-long strategic planning work day intended to challenge the status quo. Attendees applied what we learned from the needs assessment to refine our goals and strategies, identify new opportunities to improve our system, and prioritize the strategic direction of our system for the next three years.
Phase III: Refining and Reviewing the Plan
Throughout August, we synthesized learning from the needs assessment and strategic priorities identified by system stakeholders into the plan that follows.
In order to maximize broad involvement, we hosted a two-part, interactive webinar series on August 9 and 13, in each of which 60 individuals participated. The first webinar reviewed the needs assessment; the second webinar offered the same opportunity related to the strategic plan. Both webinars were shared with the public by posting the opportunities on the Early Childhood Iowa website and via email to more than 1,500 individuals. We surveyed stakeholders publicly on the Early Childhood Iowa website and received responses with questions, suggestions, and other feedback.
Phase IV: Formal Adoption
Our strategic planning process concluded with formal presentations to the Stakeholder’s Alliance on September 5 and the State Board on September 6.
Phase V: A Living Document
The plan below provides a path forward for Early Childhood Iowa, policymakers and the children and families we serve. We recognize, however, that the landscape of what Iowa’s children and families need is ever-changing. In that sense, our plan is viewed as a “living document” - one that we will revisit and revise on an ongoing basis to ensure we’re able to quickly adjust our course when needed.
Ongoing Stakeholder Engagement
Our process benefited from the widespread responses from families and early childhood providers across our state. We will continue to engage families and providers to activate the identified goals and strategies of this plan.
Iowa’s Strategic Plan 2019-2022
Goal #1: Promote a coordinated infrastructure to advance the early childhood system.
“Make sure the dots are connected. So what I mean by that, there could be high level collaboration between the head of the Department of Public Health, the head of the Iowa Department of Education, the head of the Iowa Department of Human Services, but it may not trickle down to the boots-to-the-ground folks here that this is a policy change, and this is how it’s going to be.” – Provider
“… I go back to what you said about having six care coordinators trying to do the same thing, but I think our hands are tied because those are expectations of our agencies. So, like, even if you knew that I would take care of it, you still have to somehow document on it and so you still have to figure it out.” – Provider
Iowa’s commitment to advancing an integrated, coordinated, and comprehensive early childhood system is reflected in ECI’s legislative priorities and related guidelines for infrastructure development. We understand that a strong, well-coordinated infrastructure that balances public and private participation is the foundation for any future improvements in early care, health, and education services in the state. Early Childhood Iowa has valued broad-based systems development and sought to strengthen stakeholder engagement, strategic planning, and prioritizing collaboration. While we have made progress, we have recognized that three constituencies have been insufficiently represented across the ECI structure: the business sector, families, and communities of color. This remains an issue for our system, which this plan seeks to address.
Our recent needs assessment process tested new strategies, including using an integrated administrative data system and strategic two-way learning sessions with stakeholders. Through this process, we identified several areas that need improvement to support our coordinated infrastructure.
Through surveys, focus groups, and learning sessions, stakeholders shared that there is insufficient understanding of ECI’s purpose and how it functions relative to state and local early care, health, and education systems serving families. Further, the essential make-up of ECI as a public-private partnership has not always been leveraged to advance the common mission. Examples of effective partnerships exist in our state, but we do not strategically document or replicate these to improve the system. Lastly, our use of interactive data-to-decision-making frameworks revealed gaps in capacity that we must address, as well as the need for additional processes to facilitate strategic thinking in the “use” of data.
The following strategic priorities were identified as a result of these identified needs.
Strategy 1.1: Expand collaboration and coordination among state and local programs and agencies serving young children and their families.
- Action 1. Explore opportunities and limits to collaboration within legislation that impacts young children and families. We will conduct a full scan of legislation and policies, including ECI and other state departments involved in funding and implementing the early childhood system. We will further identify opportunities for revisions or clarifications to policies and law that would facilitate greater collaboration, access to services, and equitable outcomes.
- Action 2. Define the specific roles and responsibilities of ECI relative to state and local systems. We will review and revise existing documents that describe the system, in order to clarify and operationalize how we collaborate. This will include each component of ECI that serves as a system connection with other state and local entities, including the ECI State Board, Agency Administrators, Stakeholder’s Alliance, and Component Groups. All entities within ECI will include representation from underserved groups, including those from diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and differently-abled communities.
- Action 3. Create routine communications strategies and training about the ECI system. We will develop a plan to consistently communicate roles and responsibilities, expectations for collaboration, and the processes by which we facilitate collaboration and coordination. We will also develop training materials for current and future stakeholders to better understand how the system is designed to work and the unique roles and responsibilities of all the players.
Strategy 1.2: Develop and nurture effective public-private partnerships at a state and local level.
- Action 1. Create a process for documenting and replicating effective public-private partnerships. We will create a routine process to gather information about effective partnerships to facilitate sharing and replication. This will include identifying successful partnerships, documenting how they were established and what were the key elements, and generating routine processes to collect the information and make it available to others.
- Action 2. Support building and improving public-private partnerships across the system. We will provide technical assistance and training for local early childhood boards to develop and leverage community-specific partnerships. We will encourage peer-to-peer support between those already implementing effective partnerships and those wanting to build them. We will also organize and host an annual networking meeting to share best practices and generate opportunities for new partnerships.
- Action 3. Showcase and reward successful partnerships. We will share noteworthy public-private partnerships and their strategies.
Strategy 1.3: Infuse data-based discussions and decision-making processes throughout the early childhood system.
- Action 1. Enhance the capacity of Iowa’s Early Childhood Integrated Data System (IDS) to capture population-based information about child and family needs, services, and outcomes. We will better analyze and use data we have and expand the IDS capacity to identify gaps in data and research. We will also implement and improve governance and technology for the IDS.
- Action 2. Provide state and local decision-makers with routine data analysis and reports. This work will include a “state of the state” report and local reporting tools to support local-level decision-making. We will consider other audiences and stakeholders that may need or benefit from regular/routine reporting on cross-systems information generated from IDS.
- Action 3. Improve our “data culture” across the comprehensive early childhood system. We will adopt the habits of data-based decision making, grounding our understanding of issues in data and research and our solutions in field-recognized, research-informed practices. We will also create tailored training and technical support for stakeholder groups to “use” data in strategic planning/decision making.
- Action 4. Create flexible accountability structures that emphasize the use of data in decision-making. We will generate plans to use the priorities identified through data findings and related stakeholder discussions to inform the state budget in areas that impact the early childhood system. We will also use data-informed priorities to strengthen ECI’s component groups.
- Action 5. Improve our capacity to measure outcome change. We will create clear processes for how indicators will be identified, measured, monitored, and routinely updated to align with our intended outcomes. We will then develop training for state and local level partners in how to create and monitor indicators.
Goal #2: Build public will for investing in young children and families.
“If we’re overwhelmed [by the system], we know parents are.” – Provider
“Well, we need to fund early childhood like we do K through 12, that’s the bottom line, and until lawmakers put that as their priority, we’re going to be struggling with the same story ….” – Provider
“I kind of used Google at first because coming from the city, I guess I was used to Googling and kind of doing more online research. However, I kind of found out, kind of more like she said, the word of mouth.” –Parent
“My sister-in-law already had a daughter at our day care, and that’s kind of where we just went.” – Parent
The resources needed to fund fully an early childhood system will only become available when there is a public will that believes the well-being and success of its young children are of primary importance. In order to shift public will, we must improve understanding of the necessary components of an early childhood system, the contribution it makes to community development, and how children and families benefit.
Universal recognition of the value of investments in early childhood and what constitutes “quality care” remains a challenge for our state. While executive leaders have made investments in programs, a solid understanding of the necessary components of a mixed-delivery system is lacking. Policymakers often lack data when making decisions about where to spend public dollars and promote policies putting families and children first. Without adequate information about values and priorities, they are challenged in deciding how best to move forward.
Family voices are too rarely utilized to determine the scope and shape of early childhood services. A responsive system must listen and respond to those voices – including ones from diverse linguistic, racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Our needs assessment identified that two-way communication strategies would help our state fully “hear” family voices and incorporate them into strategic decision-making processes.
The following strategic priorities address these needs and build a more solid and comprehensive communication approach. These strategies will establish the universal importance of a vital early childhood system. Our communications efforts will also ensure that parents become the leaders of changes needed in the early childhood system.
Strategy 2.1: Communicate the value of The First 2,000 Days as the most critical stage of the human lifecycle.
- Action 1. Utilize “The First 2,000 Days” as the unifying message for all communication efforts. We will create a message that connects the value of early childhood to later life outcomes (education, economic, and health) that can be tailored for diverse audiences. This work will also include identifying opportunities to connect our message to other state and local priorities and initiatives, such as Future Ready Iowa and community economic development groups.
- Action 2. Develop and implement an external communication plan. Recognizing that information must be tailored to different audiences, we will develop a variety of ways to increase awareness, educate, engage, and lead to action for families, students, businesses and other partners, policy makers, and community leaders. We will explore options to secure formal support/capacity to implement the plan with consistency across state and local communication efforts.
- Action 3. Coordinate our communication efforts. We will identify opportunities to streamline and coordinate our communication and messaging efforts with state and local partner organizations and initiatives. Key to this effort will be identifying message “champions,” including local leaders to engage community, civic, and other relevant groups in the desired action.
Strategy 2.2: Partner with families and communities to improve communication about what young children and families need and how the system responds.
- Action 1. Create an “information hub” for families. We will streamline and improve options for families to access information by creating a centralized information “hub.” We will provide accurate, accessible, culturally-responsive, multi-lingual, high-quality information about the early childhood system. From the start, we will engage families and communities directly to provide feedback on existing sources of information about early childhood services and supports.
- Action 2. Partner with community-specific leaders. We will partner with leaders from underserved and underrepresented populations to assist our efforts to improve how families access culturally- and linguistically-responsive information about and engage with early childhood services and programs. Community-specific leaders could include respected individuals that serve in a civic, educational, social service, faith, or other community leadership capacity.
Strategy 2.3: Engage families as leaders and advocates for a comprehensive early childhood system.
- Action 1. Identify and adopt a framework for engaging families as leaders in system change. From the outset, we will build our system’s capacity to effectively engage families, hear their voices, and openly respond to feedback about how to improve the system. We will do this by leveraging existing frameworks and models for successful family leadership, such as the Head Start Parent, Family and Community Engagement Framework, which includes efforts to engage and strengthen families in performing roles of caregiver, teacher and advocate.
- Action 2. Develop and implement a “family academy.” The “family academy” will provide training for families to develop their ability to act as leaders for improved child, family, and community outcomes. The academy will also provide support to families as they assume leadership positions as leaders and advocates for system change. Informed and empowered parents would continue as leaders and advocates as their children enter the K-12 system as well.
- Action 3. Create a standing mechanism for families to participate in shaping the direction of our early childhood system. This effort will include both formal (e.g., a parent advisory board or parent summit) and informal (e.g., focus groups and surveys) opportunities for families to lead.
- Action 4. Increase engagement of family advocates in system events. We will increase the presence of parents, grandparents, caregivers, and other community advocates at conferences, legislative, and other special events. We will center their voices when delivering key messages about the importance of the early childhood system.
Goal #3: Transform the early childhood workforce through formal education, improved professionalization, increased skills and competence, and new approaches to implementing best practices.
“Speaking as an in-home child care provider, in-home child care providers do not have enough support to deal with children who have a mental health issue and those kinds of things.” – Provider
“I think starting pay is like $8.25. I’ve known teachers that have worked there for 10-plus years and don’t make over $9 an hour.” – Parent
Parallel with national efforts drawing attention to the diverse nature and scope of early childhood workforce challenges, our recent needs assessment repeatedly identified significant gaps in the quality and quantity of our workforce relative to the need for services. Child Care centers that are not enrolled at capacity report staffing as their main reason, which is a challenge to improving quality. Potential child care providers have a range of educational backgrounds, requiring diverse professional options. There is also a need to offer a career trajectory for early childhood educators with progressive supports and growth opportunities that “pays” for the level of quality that we need in our programs.
Improving the early care and education workforce is a necessary first step toward sharing best practices and making measurable quality improvements in early childhood settings within a mixed-delivery system. These improvements will bring other benefits to communities – particularly rural ones – by expanding the availability of quality child care for parents in the workforce, providing a career path in communities with few such opportunities, and assisting businesses in recruiting and retaining parents for their work force. To reach these goals, we will need to better partner with Iowa Workforce Development and the Iowa Economic Development Authority (Future Ready Iowa.)
The following strategic priorities focus on ways we can advance our workforce along three dimensions: formal education, competence, and compensation/benefits.
Strategy 3.1: Create a larger, more skilled early childhood workforce.
Action 1. Establish the field of early care and education as a viable post-secondary career option. We will create partnerships with the K-12 education system to promote careers and college degree attainment in early childhood for high school students.
- Action 2. Identify and recruit untapped labor into the early childhood career pathway. We will partner with Iowa’s community college system to identify students in specific localities to pursue credentials and degrees as a cohort. We will also work to diversity the workforce by recruiting individuals from underrepresented groups to follow the early childhood career pathway.
- Action 3: Establish consistent professional development opportunities for the early childhood workforce at all levels. We will meet providers where they are and provide training opportunities that promote best practices, role-related competencies, and understanding of evidence-based strategies. We will work to ensure that the needs of all early childhood professionals are met throughout the state.
- Action 4: Improve access to formal education coursework linked to recommended evidence-based practices. We will partner with educational institutions to expand the availability of required and optional courses included in the career pathways (e.g., topics related to mental health, serving children with special needs in inclusive settings, and trauma informed practices). We will emphasize online courses to ensure access for rural professionals.
- Action 5. Promote and engage the existing child care workforce and family support workforce in continuing their degree attainment. This effort will emphasize and promote college-credit bearing coursework through financial support from T.E.A.C.H. EARLY CHILDHOOD®. We will expand T.E.A.C.H. to ensure all providers, teachers and home visitors have access to coursework that leads to credentials (e.g., CDA, paraeducator license, associate and bachelor’s degrees, teacher license).We will explore policy opportunities in our QRIS and in program licensing to incentivize or require teachers/home visitors to have specific degrees or credentials.
- Action 6: Develop a professional development hub. We will create an online hub for providers that includes access to available professional development opportunities – including education, training, and technical assistance – and the resources and support required across the early childhood systems and by professional development providers. This hub will facilitate shared understanding of best practices, as well as connect providers with trained coaches and provider networks so they can get the help they need for implementing best practices and developing their own career development plans. The hub will also interface with the early childhood and school age professional workforce registry.
Strategy 3.2: Provide new or expanded early childhood workforce supports to enhance the quality of early childhood programs and services.
- Action 1: Enhance workforce skill and competence. We will strengthen career pathways with competencies aligned with the national standards (see.g., Iowa Core Knowledge of Child Development) and promote the effective use of the Iowa Early Learning Standards for work with children. This expanded approach to career pathways will include multiple entry points that address the diverse education levels of our workforce.
- Action 2: Provide formal support for ongoing competency development. We will establish formal structures for on-going workforce consultation related to documenting baseline competencies and targeting training that meets provider needs. Training will also be developed to support improving comprehensive services, coordinated supports, and quality full-day programming for young children.
- Action 3: Expand opportunities to provide dedicated support/specialization for children’s mental health and wellbeing. We will enhance knowledge and skills related to practices that support young children’s social emotional development and use of trauma-informed approaches to providing early care and education services (e.g., Infant Mental Health Endorsement)10
- Action 4. Expand opportunities to provide dedicated support/specialization for children with special needs. We will accomplish this by expanding and replicating current models for endorsement.
- Action 5: Address poor compensation and benefits for the early childhood child care workforce. We will address this through a targeted communications effort to raise awareness and bring focused attention to this issue. We will partner with workforce and community economic development efforts to ensure this becomes a shared goal across state initiatives. We will also increase our investment in the WAGE$ and PAEYS programs. These programs provide bonuses commensurate to college credit and degree attainment for the early care and education and family support workforce.
Goal #4. Ensure that young children and families receive the services they need when they need them.
“Cost of childcare and preschool is too prohibitive, especially for families with multiple children. Even though statewide preschool is available, there were not enough spaces and paying for wrap around child care is difficult anyway. Transportation is impossible to secure if needing preschool in a different district or trying to transport to a different child care provider.” -- Parent
“It just depends on, you know, everybody’s income and if they do qualify for assistance, but that working pool that’s out there, sometimes they fall in-between the cracks. It’s difficult.” -- Parent
“There is not enough childcare providers for children with special needs. Not enough educated or well-rounded child care providers who deal with those children. Whether it’s in home or center passed. My daughter has Autism and she’s 11 years old and it was impossible to find care for her while I work.” -- Parent
“If we don’t have any open spots, they say, where can you recommend? We try and tell them. They say, we’ve already called there. They don’t have any spots. They don’t have any spots. And so we’ve encountered a lot of families that are just frustrated because they can’t find a place for their child to be.” – Provider
“It is really difficult to find quality childcare in my area. Desired centers have years-long waiting lists. Head Start/Pre-K is even more difficult unless you know someone who knows the ropes. I feel like this could be much improved.”
Our early childhood system has strived for equity for children and families. We established an Equity Committee. We engaged stakeholders, leaders from communities of color and other disadvantaged groups, and partners from other systems to develop a set of Equity Guiding Principles to be applied in our decisions about funding, policy, and practices. . We recognize, however, that our good faith efforts to achieve equity have lacked solid evidence to guide our path.
Our needs assessment provided us with an opportunity to examine our administrative data about whom we are serving (and who we are not) and to truly “hear” families with young children. For instance, we learned that some Iowa families are less likely to access our preschool programs - including minority children (i.e., Hispanic, Black, and multiracial), children born to single mothers or mothers without a high school education, and children born with inadequate prenatal care.
We learned from families that the biggest barriers to finding care are waiting lists and costs that do not account for what working families can actually afford. Families also identified gaps in services for children with disabilities, behavioral health, and gaps related to mental health and housing access. Furthermore, isolated services often lead to disordered or absent transitions from early childhood education settings to school district kindergarten programs. Access to services is not equitable across urban, suburban, and rural communities. In effect, we have a shortage of early care and education services but that shortage is felt most acutely by families living in poverty.
We envision a renewed commitment to equity by identifying and taking concrete action to improve the outcomes we produce, beginning with improved access equity to programs with the highest levels of quality. The following priority strategies were identified through stakeholder learning sessions that included discussions about the needs assessment data in order to determine actionable steps that could address gaps. In the three action items, we will expand partnerships with local groups such as ECI area boards for coordination efforts as appropriate.
Strategy 4.1: Improve equitable access to early learning opportunities and services for vulnerable and underserved children and families.
- Action 1. Adopt and implement a “not about us without us” approach to planning. We will address disparities in what is offered and available to whom, where, and how by directly engaging vulnerable and underserved families and communities in system planning. Together, we will build upon areas of strength to address these disparities in access by race, ethnicity, family income, geographic area, language, culture, different-abledness and other distinguishing characteristics.
- Action 2. Prioritize vulnerable and underserved children and families for service access and provision. We will accomplish this by enhancing and expanding outreach and enrollment efforts for state-funded preschool programs and other services to improve participation rates for all types of vulnerable and underserved children (e.g., children in foster care, children living in poverty, children with special needs, children from immigrant families, and dual language learners). We will target areas where participation rates are low and expand access as needed to address increased demands and eliminate waiting list experiences for vulnerable and underserved families.
- Action 3. Increase center-based and home-based child care provider participation in Iowa’s Child Care Assistance (CCA) program. We will partner with our State Child Care Advisory Committee and other system partners to complete, implement, and expand training and support related to participation in the Child Care Assistance program for center- and home-based providers. This approach includes operational skill-building, including training on fiscal and business practices to support participation.
Strategy 4.2: Expand and improve access to high quality early learning opportunities and services for young children and their families.
- Action 1. Cluster services to limit family travel needs where possible. This will include leveraging public-private partnerships to develop transportation plans that support service access (e.g., DART, HERTA, carpooling incentives, and school districts).
- Action 2. Expand the number of overall slots available for young children in the early care and education system. We will expand efforts to recruit and retain providers across the early care and education field by expanding training and support. This will include providing training and support related to overall business skill development for providers.
- Action 3. Expand the hours of programming, care and wrap-around services available. We will promote and leverage state and local partnerships to expand the availability of non-traditional care and overall early care and education slots available for children and families. We will begin this effort with a scan of current investments across the state.
Strategy 4.3: Improve transitions among early childhood programs and between the early childhood and K-12 education systems.
- Action 1. Promote stronger collaboration between school districts and local early care and education services. We will begin by identifying places where we have effective approaches to collaboration between the early childhood and K-12 education systems. We will then document the key elements for these successes, develop training and support to replicate and share best practices, and identify opportunities for expansion.
- Action 2. Improve transitions between early care and education programs and school districts. These collaborations will leverage requirements in the Every Student Succeeds Act for local education agencies to have written agreements with Head Start and other early education providers and engage in sharing of records, formal avenues of communication, annual meetings between teachers on both sides of the agreement, and opportunities for joint training around transitions. As these requirements are encouraged, this strategic plan will use those agreements as the platform for improved coordination of services and seamless transition procedures.
- Action 3. Improve transitions among early care and education programs. Our efforts will begin with developing a series of video “trailers” and other supports for providers within early care and education programs to enhance knowledge of other programs and services and build competencies related to improved, “hands on” referrals for child and family needs. We will identify a plan to distribute and share this resource via multiple communication pathways.
- Action 4. Develop navigation supports for families to improve system access and transitions among programs. We will identify opportunities to adopt successful navigation models tailored to facilitate access to the early childhood system, transitions between programs and services, and transitions to kindergarten. This approach will include leveraging grassroots organizations connected with the children and families we are not reaching.
Goal #5: Improve the quality of early childhood services for young children and their families across early care and education; health, mental health, and nutrition; and family support services.
“It’s very difficult to find a quality center or in home that doesn’t have a waiting list. Quality programs are very expensive.” - Parent
“I receive child care assistance from my state but I haven’t used it yet because I couldn’t find a child care centers that accept the state pay.”- Parent
“So I mean it wasn’t that it was just horrible, but there were just some things that were just not what we approved of, you know, as a family or as parents, but there was – there’s not options in small towns.” –Parent
“We used to have a lot more money, but it’s dried up over the years.” –Provider
Iowa has made significant investments in the early childhood system including development and implementation of a Quality Rating System (QRS), revision of Iowa Early Learning Standards, the development of the Institute for family support providers, and continued alignment work among our colleges and universities for coursework leading towards degree attainment in fields that support young children in early learning care and education programs. Gaps remain, however, that were emphasized through our recent needs assessment process.
1) A need for more programs to invest in using evidence-based strategies
2) A need for more provider information about the value of and support for participating in Quality Rating System and other accreditation frameworks
3) Additional supports for our workforce to fully implement quality programming (particularly around mental health and working with children with special needs)
4) A need for ongoing workforce training for staff with all levels of education to support continued learning of best practices and current research
The goals in this plan are all intended to serve as foundations for improving and facilitating access to high-quality programs and services. We cannot achieve high standards of quality for early care and education without a well-coordinated system, public will to invest in quality, a highly-skilled and valued workforce to provide critical services, and options for families to choose a program or service that best meets their unique needs. The focus of Goal 5, therefore, is on building continuous quality improvement strategies to ensure rigorous standards of implementation with fidelity for evidence-based programming are in place.
To fully implement these strategies, our relationships and partnerships between state and local efforts need to be deliberately sought and continuously reviewed. The early childhood system of systems is only strengthened when we seek all voices and roles at all levels, beginning with voices of families. Coordination at a local level is key to this cyclical process.
Strategy 5.1: Promote and incentivize the use of evidence-based programs and services across the early childhood system.
- Action 1. Support continued implementation of Iowa’s CCDF lead agency’s incentive structure to increase the number of providers participating in our QRS and other accreditation frameworks for early care and education programs. This action will begin by the implementation of a revised and enhance QRIS system for Iowa which has stronger incentives for quality and workforce improvements. It also includes increased funding to make the QRIS bonuses more enticing. Finally, it means reframing efforts within a continuous improvement model where all providers understand where they are on a continuum of quality and what are the necessary next steps to improve.
- Action 2. Expand and replicate credentialing models for family support and health, mental health and nutrition programming. We will leverage and expand existing credentialing models while continuing to address quality programming across all areas of the early childhood system. The key to quality improvement is a more educated, competent workforce. We will leverage and expand existing credentialing programs to address service availability and performance gaps, especially in areas where family support and health services (including mental health and nutrition) impact young children.
- Action 3. Develop, enhance, and maintain a continuous quality improvement process to ensure foundational quality standards are met across core early childhood services. We will engage stakeholders throughout the early childhood system to assess baseline implementation fidelity and quality measures. This will include developing a cross-sector fidelity implementation rubric that will enable us to assess and measure quality across core services at regular intervals.
- Action 4. Leverage statewide training and technical assistance providers to support implementation fidelity. We will leverage and expand on professional development models that include high quality adult learning strategies, a system of coaches focused on implementation fidelity to evidence-based practices, and the use of implementation fidelity data.
Strategy 5.2: Adopt a collective impact approach to investing in high-quality, evidence-based services, programs and activities across the early childhood system.
- Action 1. Conduct a fiscal scan of investments across the early childhood system to identify gaps, duplication of efforts, and opportunities to streamline funding. We will engage stakeholders at multiple levels to assess current and historical investment patterns related to early childhood programs and services.
- Action 2. Adopt a collective impact approach to aligning funding and resources for improved quality and outcomes. We commit to developing an overall funding plan that prioritizes streamlined and targeted investments across state and local efforts to achieve improvements in the quality of programs and services available.
- Action 3. Recommit to formally addressing resources and funding as an ECI Component Group. We will target efforts to recruit committed membership for this system component group. The work of this group will center on regular assessment of funding alignment across state and local efforts to invest in high-quality programs and services.
- Action 4. Further evaluate identified facility needs of licensed child care providers. We will review facility needs identified by child care providers and compare to most common identified areas of non-compliance with regulatory requirements for licensed child care facilities. We will develop strategies to support and invest in programs seeking to improve their facilities.
Creating Change for Young Children and Families: Implementing the Plan
We have a long history of ongoing stakeholder engagement at both the state and local levels to work collaboratively toward improved outcomes for young children and their families. We proactively include family voices, community members, and other stakeholders as leaders in system change. This engagement is facilitated through an Early Childhood Iowa infrastructure that promotes collaboration, defines roles and responsibilities, and sets system-wide accountability standards.
Partnering with the Integrated Data Governance Board and Resource Center, the ECI State Board will provide guidance and oversight of the efforts outlined and strengthen partnerships among state agencies and stakeholders.