Early Childhood Opinion

Early-Childhood Research Needs an Update

By Nonie K. Lesaux & Stephanie M. Jones — February 13, 2018 3 min read
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To date, scientific research has played an important role in early-childhood education policy and practice. It has provided us with core knowledge about the role of early learning experiences and environments in shaping child development, shed some light on whether and how early education programs work, and has, at times, addressed key questions about policy and programming—whether measuring the impact of different curricular and instructional approaches or how to structure the preschool day.

But the research has also provided an incomplete picture. To make early education’s case, the field has relied primarily on a handful of seminal studies—most of which began in the 1960s and 1970s—that were conducted with small samples not reflective of the overall population and often focused on one specific program or model. This heavy reliance on a small set of outdated studies for our best evidence on preschool’s effects has rightfully fueled skepticism about early education’s value in today’s policymaking and advocacy conversations.


Nationwide, only 2 in 10 children have access to a high-quality early education experience. Research in the last decade about the effects of preschool on children’s learning and development shows that high-quality experiences are linked to better learning outcomes, but also underscores the challenge of designing and implementing high-quality education for all students.

There is a narrow focus on questions of whether or not preschool “works.” What we’re missing is clear consensus on the ingredients for a widespread improvement strategy that is effective across today’s populations of students and the variety of early education contexts.

What do we, as two researchers studying early-childhood education, think would make the difference? We need a new generation of relevant, rigorous, large-scale research to inform a scalable improvement strategy for early education. This research should explore how different types of classrooms where young children spend their time have an impact on how they learn and grow, thereby providing current and more accurate data to bear on scaling practices and policies.

We need a new generation of relevant, rigorous, large-scale research to inform a scalable improvement strategy for early education."

Getting to a place of evidence-based policymaking for improvement demands a body of evidence that captures and reflects demographic shifts in the population over the last several decades, particularly with respect to linguistic and cultural diversity and increasing immigration rates. Research also needs to reflect an awareness of how childhood stress and trauma affect learning. Critically, early-childhood research must also capture the growing number of children (upwards of 75 percent) who are currently in some sort of early-childhood setting and reflect that current landscape, ranging from informal care at home to group-based family or community settings to public or private preschools.

In 2017, we launched our own longitudinal study, which seeks to find out exactly what today’s preschoolers need and how to deliver it. We hope it will serve as a model for states across the nation who are ready to build the next generation of scientific research in early education and care. The study is beginning with a statewide representative sample of 3- and 4-year-olds in Massachusetts who are in public, community, or parochial pre-K or in child care with parents, guardians, or relatives. We plan to follow children and families for several decades, as they transition from early education to formal schooling and beyond.

Ultimately, we hope to build a research blueprint that other states and research groups can adapt, thereby creating a richer portrait of the experiences of young children across the nation in their first years of education. Quantitative and qualitative information about early education and care settings, about family and provider experiences, and about the way children learn will, we hope, inform solutions for improvement.

Other researchers in this space should adjust their practices to spend less time on comprehensive interventions that do not lend themselves to scale and more time partnering with practitioners and policymakers to address everyday problems and identify concrete solutions for early education.

District and school leaders, educators, and early education providers face significant hurdles to deliver on the promise of early education. Only through scientific research can we shed light on the features of settings that boost children’s development, help set expectations for providers and policymakers, equip educators with knowledge and strategies to cultivate optimal learning experiences, and ultimately benefit children.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2018 edition of Education Week as Early-Childhood Research Is Out of Touch


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