The latest and final report in the RAND Corporation’s multiphase evaluation of The Big Lift reveals the initiative’s success in improving educational outcomes for students from families with low incomes. Analyses completed by the San Mateo County Office of Education further highlight the initiative’s success in supporting families through the COVID-19 pandemic and deepening kindergarten readiness gains through targeted literacy pilot efforts.
RAND’s evaluation followed The Big Lift’s first cohort of children from preschool to third grade, finding that children who participated in Big Lift preschools had English language reclassification rates that were twice as high (31 percent) as children who did not attend preschool (15 percent), setting them on the path to academic success. Preschoolers in The Big Lift also had significantly higher attendance rates in third grade than children who did not go to preschool, findings that are consistent with other research showing that high quality early childhood experiences and early attendance interventions improve elementary school attendance.
Benefits to kindergarten readiness were again confirmed for the most recent cohorts of preschoolers, similar to prior studies. Preschoolers who participated in The Big Lift were 22 percentage points more likely to be ready for kindergarten than similar children who did not attend preschool. The study revealed – for the first time – an additional, statistically significant gain for children who attended both Big Lift preschool and summer learning programs, demonstrating the positive effects of combining multiple approaches.
Programmatic analyses conducted by the County Office of Education complement these results, revealing that a smaller subset of preschool classrooms in The Big Lift raised kindergarten readiness rates by an additional 30 percentage points through an intentional, specialized, and developmentally-appropriate focus on literacy skills such as vocabulary, letter sound knowledge, and comprehension.
“These findings show that The Big Lift is not only changing the trajectory of these students but unlocking specific instructional strategies for how to improve third grade literacy rates in San Mateo County,” said San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools Nancy Magee.
The County Office of Education also examined how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted San Mateo County families and how school staff supported them during this time. Overall, almost half of kindergarten through second grade families across The Big Lift’s seven districts experienced job or income loss due to the pandemic, contributing to one-third of families leaving preschool programs when the pandemic hit. During this time, districts supported families by contacting them frequently, connecting families to services, and providing high-quality distance learning. As a result, families reported strong communication and support from teachers during the pandemic. Eighty percent of families felt their child’s teacher was often or always available to talk about their child’s academic needs, and 90 percent reported the assignments were easy to understand. They also reported the most significant challenges to distance learning were family related, not school related, such as lack of time to support their child (34 percent), their child’s motivation (33 percent), and their child struggling with too many online platforms (roughly 23 percent).
Utilizing findings from the RAND report and local analysis, The Big Lift will launch multiple literacy pilots during the 2021-22 school year designed to scale up the most promising practices and share out successful strategies to benefit more students. It will partner with two efforts – Reading Corps and SEEDS for Learning – to embed a consistent literacy focus within preschool classrooms. The Reading Corps program will also contribute to early childhood workforce development initiatives.
The learnings from The Big Lift can also inform multiple initiatives across the state, including the California Department of Education’s (CDE) launch of its statewide third-grade literacy campaign and the roll-out of universal transitional kindergarten. Notably, the CDE has called for efforts that address school readiness, family engagement, and absenteeism – the same focus areas as The Big Lift. San Mateo County is poised to leverage this opportunity and share its learnings with other counties and localities just beginning this work.
“We recognized the need and opportunity early on with the investment of Measure K local sales tax dollars and, leveraged by a one million dollar commitment in the state budget thanks to State Senator Josh Becker, The Big Lift is poised to be a model as the state rolls out its plans,” said San Mateo County Supervisor Carole Groom.
Launched by the County of San Mateo, the County Office of Education, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, The Big Lift is a bold social venture that helps more students achieve reading proficiency by third grade. Despite San Mateo County being one of the most affluent counties in the nation, 42 percent of the county’s third-graders cannot read proficiently. Of the San Mateo County students whose families are socioeconomically disadvantaged, roughly 69 percent of third graders are not reading at grade level.
The Big Lift works towards its vision by utilizing evidenced-based strategies for each of its four pillars: high-quality preschool to boost kindergarten readiness, “inspiring summers” programs to prevent learning loss, attendance efforts to reduce persistent chronic absences, and family engagement to promote home literacy practices. Through partnerships with organizations including San Mateo County Libraries, Building Educated Leaders for Life (BellXcel), Raising a Reader, Everyday Labs, and First 5 San Mateo County, The Big Lift has served 3,000 students each year across seven school districts: La Honda-Pescadero Unified, Cabrillo Unified, Ravenswood City, Redwood City, San Bruno Park, South San Francisco Unified, and Jefferson Elementary.
“The success of a program as ambitious as The Big Lift hinges on the active collaboration and visionary leadership of numerous community partners. Since The Big Lift's inception more than eight years ago, Silicon Valley Community Foundation has been proud to partner with the County of San Mateo, County Office of Education, and many other key stakeholders on this bold social venture. It has been incredibly rewarding to see our collective work and vision transform the landscape of early education for San Mateo County's youngest learners, and we look forward to The Big Lift's continued success," said Gina Dalma, Executive Vice President, Community Action, Policy and Strategy at Silicon Valley Community Foundation.
This study was undertaken by RAND Education and Labor, a division of the RAND Corporation that conducts research on early childhood through postsecondary education programs, workforce development, and programs and policies affecting workers, entrepreneurship, financial literacy, and decision making. RAND is nonprofit, nonpartisan, and committed to the public interest.
The latest report is the fifth in RAND’s multiphase, independent evaluation of The Big Lift initiative, which was commissioned by The Big Lift with generous funding from the County of San Mateo. The study builds on the findings from previous reports showing that children from the initiative’s first cohort were more kindergarten-ready and more likely to have higher reading levels in first grade than demographically similar peers who did not attend preschool.