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Asking if early-childhood education ‘works’ is the wrong question. Here are the right ones.

Children learn while they play in a sandbox on a playground at school. (iStock)
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The midterm elections were good for supporters of expanding early-childhood education, with the majority of newly elected governors expressing support for programs targeted at teaching and caring for young people.

Though there may be widespread support on the need for early-childhood education programs, there is no consensus over what those programs should focus on and look like.

In a long-term effort to try to provide clarity on that issue, Harvard University researchers launched a large-scale, longitudinal study of young children’s learning and development that explores and documents the features of the settings in which young children receive their early education and care. Harvard says its representative sample and longitudinal design enable the study to address key questions that face today’s policymakers and practitioners.

In this post, authors Stephanie Jones and Nonie Lesaux, co-directors of the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who are driving the Early Learning Study at Harvard (ELS@H), write about the project. They explain why we keep asking the wrong questions about early-childhood education and offer details of the first research findings from the initiative.

Jones is the Gerald S. Lesser Professor in Early Childhood Development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Lesaux is academic dean and the Juliana W. and William Foss Thompson Professor of Education and Society at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Early childhood education expert: I saw a brilliant way to teach kids. Unfortunately it wasn’t in the United States.

By Stephanie Jones and Nonie Lesaux

When it comes to early education, it’s time to stop asking whether it “works.”

For at least two decades, research on early education and preschool programs — and even policymaking to a degree — has been hyper-focused on a debate about whether preschool is a “good investment” — with good investment meaning that it has lasting effects on children’s growth and development, well into childhood and even adulthood.

From our perspective, focusing on the wrong question has hampered improvement efforts and slowed the progress of research that would inform these endeavors.

The reality is that receiving care outside the home in the years before school is a fact of life for the vast majority of children and families. In many households, parents are working outside the home and/or pursuing education. They aren’t worried about whether their child-care arrangement will have effects on their child’s later development; they need care that is convenient, reliable, and, above all, nurturing and stimulating for their child.

And outside of a need for child care, many parents also are looking for early experiences for their preschoolers, to give them an opportunity to learn and grow alongside other children in the years before Kindergarten.

Today, over 75 percent of 3- and 4-year-old children currently spend time in some type of early education setting, which range from universal pre-K programs to informal home-based care environments. And all across the nation, states and cities and communities are working to expand their systems of early education and care.

How ‘twisted’ early childhood education has become — from a child development expert

But the real challenge — and the driver for the question we should be asking — is that today, 2 in 10 children are in high-quality early education and care programs. These programs are expected to give them a boost as they enter school and provide them with the safe, nurturing and stimulating environment we know they need.

So it shouldn’t be an up-or-down question of whether it works but, rather, a question of how to improve quality. In other words, what are the key features that we can identify across all the different types of early education and care settings that matter most for promoting healthy development?

We need a science to inform a quality improvement strategy across what is a fragmented system; we need to consider how to build capacity in all of the settings where young children spend their time, from formal public preschool to community-based child care to the federally funded Head Start program, to the informal settings where a small group of children may spend their days in the church up the street, or with a relative or family friend.

This essential question (and pressing problem) motivated our decision to initiate a 21st-century research agenda — one to inform public policymaking and to boost the quality of the system — that has at its center a large-scale, statewide study of 3- and 4-year-old children, and the types of formal and informal education and care settings where they spend their days.

The Early Learning Study at Harvard (ELS@H), which will ultimately follow children over the course of the next decade, was intentionally designed to include a large, representative sample of children and types of settings that reflect today’s demographics and the richness and variety of the current early education landscape.

To recruit the sample, in the fall of 2017, the study’s field workers visited more than 90,000 Massachusetts households to survey parents or guardians; those with a 3- and/or 4-year-old child were interviewed about their child and where they spend time during the day. Today, the study includes not only more than 3,200 children but also their families and their early education providers and caregivers. These children and families represent the cultural, linguistic, geographic, and economic character of the state overall.

What have we learned from ELS@H so far?

Confirming prevailing assumptions about early education and care today but never before systematically documented and described, we learned that 3- and 4-year-old children in Massachusetts are in a wide variety of education and care settings.

Specifically, according to our household survey, 55 percent are in formal child-care centers with classrooms. Within this broad category, there are at least four different types, ranging from pre-K in an elementary school to the traditional community-based center on the street corner. In turn, 45 percent are in informal settings, which include family child-care providers, the care of a parent or relative, and unlicensed programs in a community center or church.

When we look at differences by age, we find that 4-year-old children are more likely than 3-year-olds to be in formal settings (60 percent vs. 50 percent), which may point to parental beliefs about what is needed in the year before kindergarten.

And when we look at where income levels fit into the picture, we find that children in Massachusetts communities with high poverty rates are more likely to be in parent-only care (21 percent vs. 14 percent) or informal care settings only (18 percent vs. 10 percent), likely indicating differential access, given costs, to formal programs.

While parents generally reported high levels of confidence in their child’s early education and care, across all community types, they expressed a wide range of concerns about their children’s futures, with 28 percent reporting concern about their child’s academic and educational future (e.g. “… that he stays in school and gets his life right”), 19 percent about their social-emotional well-being (e.g. “I want my child to be socially and emotionally well adjusted and get along with others”), and 16 percent about their physical well-being (e.g. “… that he will develop addiction or other problems.”).

These are the foundational data of the study, but only a critical first step toward a new science for a new era of policymaking. From here, we will turn our attention to identifying the “micro-features” that define children’s earliest experiences and might shed light on a strategy to increase quality across the system.

For example, what types of caregiver-child interactions and routines promote young children’s early social-emotional growth across the all of the different setting types? And how do caregiver competencies such as their use of language and their ability to manage their own emotions impact children’s growth and development? In turn, how might what we learn about these features — the critical ingredients — inform scalable solutions that best complement our nation’s rich cultural, linguistic, economic, and programmatic diversity?

Landmark studies conducted in the 1960s and ’70s (e.g. Perry Preschool and Abecedarian Projects) helped to make the case that high-quality early education can be a transformative factor in a young child’s life. In the last couple of decades, researchers looked into the overall effects that specific programs have on specific groups of children — for example, the impacts of a universal pre-K program on 4-year-olds in a single urban city, and on their third-grade reading scores — and that work continued to confirm that under very specific circumstances, early education can be an effective strategy to boost development.

But now we need to build on recent research in the neurosciences that have highlighted the role of relationships, interactions, and stress in shaping the developing brain. We need a science to inform the design and implementation of high-quality settings across program types and care settings, and all across the system that serves all children and families. This can guide policymakers to make smart and sustainable decisions and investments that will support optimal early learning environments for all.