Graphic: Courtesy of FSG
Graphic: Courtesy of FSG

Early education has gotten needed national, state and local attention. But as the country tries to create the best outcomes for young children, these efforts have  “created a proliferation of related indicators and standards,” a new report notes. “With an overabundance of measures, there is increasing confusion about how to define and measure positive early childhood outcomes.”

To clear away the confusion, the report — “Markers that Matter: Success Indicators in Early Learning and Education,” released by FSG, a nonprofit consulting firm — “distilled over 1,100 existing indicators to 48 indicators (also called markers) and identified gaps and emerging themes in an evolving field.”

Explaining the themes in more detail, the report says, “We identified gaps where new themes are emerging and further research is needed to develop additional indicators, particularly in the area of racial and cultural equity.”

The report points to three priorities for the early learning field:

– Understanding that early learning occurs in a complex ecosystem

– Recognizing the need for racial and cultural equity

– Using common indicators to communicate and collaborate in a historically fragmented field

With an eye on the country’s increasing racial, cultural and economic diversity, the report divides the early childhood system into four concentric circles: the first circle at the system’s center represents children; the next biggest circle represents families; next are providers of early care and education; and the largest circle represents communities.

The 48 indicators – as well as 10 themes — fall into one of these circles, and they can be used to drive changes that improve children’s and families’ lives.


There are 18 indicators for children, among these are birth weight; having health insurance and access to healthcare; kindergarten readiness and reading proficiency by fourth grade.

An emerging theme is children’s abilities to be tolerant of peers with different racial, cultural and linguistic backgrounds.


The nine indicators for families include the percent of children living in families below the federal poverty line, births to teens and unmarried women, substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect, and maternal depression.

Three themes emerge for families, including access to educational, cultural and financial resources; levels of chronic stress; and attitudes about obedience and education.


The 17 indicators for providers include the “percent of three-to-four year olds enrolled in a center-based early childhood care and education program.”  Other indicators are availability of books and math materials, use of social skills curricula, having outdoor play areas, and having teachers with college degrees and specialized early childhood training.

The themes that emerged for providers include culturally appropriate teacher/child interactions; and having staff members who reflect the racial and cultural diversity of children.


The four indicators for communities include high housing costs (more than 30 percent of family income); numbers of child care subsidies, and area poverty levels.

The themes for communities are safety, stability, and having “grocery stores with healthy food choices.”

Driving Change

The report points to Boston as a place where “indicators have helped to support collaboration on behalf of better outcomes for young children.”

These indicators are being used by Thrive in 5, which was launched in 2008 by Mayor Thomas Menino and the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley.

The report says, “The Thrive in 5 initiative, led by a backbone organization of the same name, adopted a ‘School Readiness Equation’ in pursuit of its goal of making 100 percent of Boston’s children ready for school by kindergarten entry by 2018.”

The equation is: Ready Families + Ready Educators + Ready System + Ready City = Children Ready for Sustained Success.

“Working with a range of entities, including parents and families; early education, care, and health providers; community organizations; and businesses, Thrive in 5 has developed strategies within each part of the equation,” the report notes.

One Thrive in Five initiative that launched in 2010 is Boston Children Thrive, an “on-the-ground effort to engage parents as their children’s first teachers and as neighborhood-wide change agents for school readiness,” according to a Thrive in Five statement. Boston Children Thrive operates in Allston/Brighton, East Boston, South End/Lower Roxbury, Dudley, and Fields Corner.

The program uses indicators and data to reach families who can be hit hardest by the achievement gap, including families of color, families who speak languages other than English, and families in which parents have a high school diploma or lower educational achievement, the report says, adding that in one neighborhood, 94 percent of families participated in school readiness activities.

Indicators are like compass points that help families and communities figure out where they want to go, the report notes, concluding: “indicators can help individuals and groups of actors better understand their purpose and inform the actions they take on behalf of the healthy development of young children. Again, indicators are a compass, not a map. They can give direction, but it takes many different actors with a common language and shared understanding to reach the destination: a nation where children—all children—are nurtured, supported and prepared for success in school, work and life.”