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Harvard researchers aim to answer lingering questions about early-childhood education

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Jacobson, Linda
Publication Date: 
13 Nov 2018


Dive Brief:

  • More than half of Massachusetts’s preschoolers are enrolled in center-based, early-childhood education programs, including Head Start and public pre-K programs. But 4-year-olds are more likely to be in “formal” programs, while 3-year-olds are more likely to attend family child care homes or to spend their days with a parent or guardian, according to the first official results of a statewide study by researchers in the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.
  • Part of the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, the household survey also shows that preschoolers in low-poverty communities are more likely to be enrolled in center-based programs, while those in high-poverty neighborhoods are more likely to be cared for at home.
  • While the initial results are similar to what is widely known about patterns of enrollment in early-childhood programs across the country, the representative sample for the Early Learning Study was drawn from across the state, and the researchers will follow children over time to learn how particular aspects of high-quality early learning programs affect child outcomes and which “key ingredients” of programs can be spread on a broader scale.

Dive Insight:

Even though many policymakers and education leaders widely support early-childhood education programs, questions over the short- and long-term benefits of preschool continue. But research findings are often affected by how a study was designed, who was in the sample, and what period of time is covered by the study.

What stands out about the Early Learning Study is the way it’s being conducted. For example, field workers conducted in-person visits to 90,544 households across the state to gather initial data on where preschool-age children spend their time and to recruit some children for the longitudinal study. Instead of conducting surveys by phone or mail, researchers Stephanie Jones and Nonie Lesaux, learned from their 2017 pilot that participation rates were much higher when field workers were involved. The field workers were recruited from the community and received extensive training.

The children in the sample are now 4 and 5, with some still in early-childhood programs and others in kindergarten. The next wave of surveys, assessments and observations will begin in January, with the researchers focusing on the characteristics of the early-childhood programs children attend and measuring children’s language, literacy, early math, cognitive and social-emotional skills. The researchers are also hoping other states and researchers will replicate the study design in their states. While they’ve received interest, they aren’t yet aware of specific efforts.

Entered Date: 
21 Nov 2018
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