Early Childhood

Early-Education Research Viewed as a Policy Tool

By Linda Jacobson — June 27, 2008 4 min read
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In a sign of continued commitment to early education despite state budget woes, more than 100 public officials and business leaders from 14 states have gathered here this week to learn how to apply the most up-to-date knowledge on child development to the challenges facing pre-K programs.

The participants include state legislators, representatives from governor’s offices, early-childhood-education policy experts, and members of the private sector—“the key people who can make something happen,” said Steffanie Clothier, a child-care and early-childhood-education expert at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.

The June 26-27 meeting, called the National Symposium on Early Childhood Science and Policy, also represents a new partnership of the NCSL, the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices, and the Center on the Developing Child, located here at Harvard University.

“This is an experiment for us,” Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, the director of the Harvard center, told the group during its opening session. He said he hopes the meeting results in opportunities for his center to work in advancing strong early-childhood programs in a few of the states.

Dr. Shonkoff, who has been working for several years to translate for policymakers research on early brain development, spoke of understanding lawmakers’ election-driven need to show results from programs.

Not Beginners

The participation of so many states, including Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington, shows the continued interest in building programs in early-childhood education and development, even in the face of budget pressures that have forced some states to cut education funding.

Many of the states represented at the gathering are certainly not beginners at spending on programs for young children. Connecticut, for example, was among the first states to launch a targeted pre-K program for children of low-income families, a step it took in 1997, and Illinois Gov. Rod R. 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.

“The two things we need to make sure we’re doing is spend the money wisely, and recognize the tradeoffs we’re making,” said Illinois state Sen. Don Harmon, a Democrat, adding that services shouldn’t be targeted entirely to children deemed at risk of academic failure.

Ms. Clothier noted that while the expansion of pre-K programs has been the focus of many governors in recent years, the state teams attending this week’s meeting are interested in a broad range of services for young children and their parents.

Washington state Rep. Ruth Kagi, also a Democrat, said she’s concerned about the early-development needs of children who have been abused and neglected.

“The science is not used very effectively to influence child welfare,” she said of existing research in the field.

Other topics explored at the meeting include programs for infants and toddlers—what Sen. Harmon described as “the hardest area to reach”—and professional development and quality-improvement efforts for providers.

“This is sort of a culmination of two research questions,” Ms. Clothier said. “What is the best science out there that we can use to inform our decisionmaking, and what is effective?” Just because results are significant in a research study, she added, doesn’t mean they are always significant enough “from a policy perspective.”

In fact, Dr. Shonkoff said paying attention to the latest study on health or child development is often confusing, because it can contradict an earlier finding. The question, he said, is “What do we know from decades of research?”

‘Early Roots’

At the conference, Dr. Shonkoff recapped key points from the research literature on brain development that he deems the most relevant to early-childhood policy.

They include the long-term neurological damage that can be done by what scientists call “toxic stress”—repeated situations in which a young child feels threatened and doesn’t have supportive relationships to help the child’s “system” return to normal.

Dr. Shonkoff reviewed studies showing that language delays begin as early as 16 months of age for children in low-income homes.

“The early roots of the achievement gap due to parental education begin very early,” he said, hinting that states’ emphasis on pre-K programs isn’t addressing the real problem of children growing up with serious risk factors, such as maternal depression, neglect, and violence in the home. “In our world, [age] 4 is not early,” he said.

Some of the new issues on which the state teams will focus include continuous improvement in existing programs, mental-health, and finding “new strategies” for improving the economic security of families.

The role of public-private partnerships is also being highlighted at the meeting.

“Science doesn’t necessarily say the answers are all in the government,” Dr. Shonkoff said. “This is too big a problem to just be solved by the government.”

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