States Eye Research to Shape Pre-K Priorities

Science, Policy Viewed as Tightly Linked in Era of Shrinking Resources

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After more than a decade of expansion in early-childhood services, states exploring how to best target their resources are looking more closely at child-development research for guidance.

The policy value of such research is the focus of an effort launched this summer to give leaders from 14 states a closer look at current findings in the field that may help shape their decisions at a time of tight budgets.

That effort, which kicked off at a two-day meeting late last month at Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, is designed to help states tackle the challenges created by the “intersection of early-childhood science and policy,” Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, the director of the center, which co-sponsored the event.

“How you [implement programs] where you are is a different question from ‘What does the literature show?’ ” said Dr. Shonkoff.

The June 26-27 meeting in Cambridge, Mass., was convened by Dr. Shonkoff’s center, the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, and the Center for Best Practices at the National Governors Association, in Washington.

The state “teams” included legislators, representatives from governors’ offices, business leaders, and experts on early-childhood policy—“the key people who can make something happen,” said Steffanie Clothier, a child-care and early-childhood-education expert at the NCSL.

Kristie Kauerz, a policy director for Colorado Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, a Democrat, called the meeting a “phenomenal opportunity” and said the presentations with the latest research were “over-the-top good.”

But states still face the challenge, Ms. Kauerz said, of trying to apply the scientific knowledge to their policy decisions. And just creating another new program—unlikely for many states facing budget deficits—might not be the wisest move, she added.

“Even if the economy were better,” Ms. Kauerz said, “I still think there needs to be a more sophisticated policy approach.”

Not Beginners

Clearly, many states have established and continued to expand public pre-K programs, and most of the states represented at the Harvard gathering were certainly not beginners at spending public money on programs for young children.

Connecticut, for example, was among the first states to launch a targeted pre-K program for poor children in 1997, and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, has been working to gradually expand the targeted pre-K program in his state to a universal program for 3- and 4-year-olds.

National Symposium On Early-Childhood Science and Policy

• Held to help states better connect child-development research to their decisions on policies affecting children from birth through age 5

• Sponsored by Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices

• States involved: Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington

• State-level delegations worked with specialists in such fields as neuroscience, molecular biology, medicine, and developmental psychology.

But future early-childhood policies are likely to focus on more than just preschoolers.

Illinois state Sen. Don Harmon, for example, said he’s interested in expanding services for infants and toddlers, which he described as “the hardest area to reach,” in part because of the public’s reservations about having the government involved in services for children that young.

“You need to respect parental choices and preferences,” the Democratic lawmaker said. “But we need to make sure we get resources to those who need them.”

Other states are also considering new ways to intervene earlier than the preschool years in the lives of children who are deprived of both supportive relationships and positive early learning experiences.

In his presentation, Dr. Shonkoff displayed a graphic showing how the likelihood that a child will have developmental delays increases when more risk factors—such as poverty, family violence, and a mother’s depression—are present.

Home-visitation programs, which often employ trained nurses, are one way that states have tried to support new mothers.

Numerous research studies back up the value of an early start to child-development programs, such as findings that show the beginning of language delays as early as 16 months for children living in low-income households, Dr. Shonkoff said.

“The best returns on your money will come when you intervene as early as possible with the most disadvantaged children,” he said. “In our world, [age] four is not early.”

‘Too Big a Problem’

States currently in the forefront of such work may not include those that are often considered leaders in early-childhood education.

For example, a report Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader recently released by the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation, said that Georgia—which in 1995 became the first state to offer a universal pre-K program—is no longer a leader in enrollment, high-quality standards, or spending per child.

“Today there are other states with larger rates of pre-K enrollment, faster rates of growth, more comprehensive programs, stronger standards for high quality, and larger per-child investments,” the report said. “While it remains in 2008 one of the nation’s better programs, Georgia’s Pre-K program is in danger of being outdistanced by the early-learning movement it started.”

While the circumstances are different in every state, Dr. Shonkoff at the recent conference tried to help the team members narrow down their ideas to some policy areas that could have the most impact.

Public-private partnerships, he said, are crucial to launching new initiatives and building support.

“This is too big a problem to just be solved by the government,” he said.

The meeting also featured the work of two foundations—the Omaha, Neb.-based Buffett Early Childhood Fund and the Tulsa, Okla.-based George Kaiser Family Foundation.

Both philanthropies have been involved in opening a network of “Educare” centers throughout the country, which serve children from birth through age 5.

“To me, private dollars can and should be used for more than seed money,” said Daniel J. Pedersen, the president of the Buffett Early Childhood Fund.

Dr. Shonkoff also recommended that states focus on building up their early-childhood-education workforces, and improving mental-health services for children and for the adults who work with them.

Vol. 27, Issue 43, Pages 17, 20

Published in Print: July 16, 2008, as States Eye Research to Shape Pre-K Priorities
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