by the Harvard Graduate School of Education
By Bari Walsh
January 17, 2017
In early education, a new study asks the big questions: What works, for whom and under what conditions?
A new study from Harvard University could substantially transform our understanding of what works in early childhood education in the United States, creating clearer avenues to bring effective practices and policies to scale.
The Early Learning Study at Harvard — which kicks off this spring and is set to last at least four and a half years, with plans for extension — will follow a demographically representative sample of three-year-olds from across Massachusetts, capturing their experiences in the actual settings in which they spend their time. Such a large-scale, population-based study would significantly enrich our current knowledge, which relies primarily on data from just a handful of small-scale studies, dating back to the 1960s and 1970s.
“When it comes to preschool and its benefits, most of what we know or think we know is based on decades-old data derived from one specific program or setting.”
The study will be conducted by the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, under the direction of Associate Professor Stephanie Jones and Professor Nonie Lesaux.
“When it comes to preschool and its benefits, most of what we know or think we know is based on decades-old data derived from one specific program or setting,” says Lesaux.
“That makes it hard to assess its merits or how to capitalize on what works. This study will bring the science up to date and give us the knowledge we need to inform 21st-century policies and practices. It will widen the lens, producing findings that consider the experiences and settings of children from a variety of linguistic, socioeconomic, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and in settings that range from informal family care to center-based preschool.”
Among the key questions the study will address:
- What are the learning outcomes and developmental gains we can expect from early learning environments?
- Which of these outcomes — vocabulary, higher-order thinking, and self-regulation, for example — rely particularly on high-quality early learning experiences?
- What preK models work, and why?
- How can we identify and scale the effective ingredients?
- What are the features of early schooling — types of instruction, or characteristics of teachers, for example — that sustain and multiply (or undermine) the benefits of preschool?
The researchers will focus on four major domains of child development: cognitive, social-emotional, language, and neuro-physiological. They’ll also assess the quality of the everyday settings in which children are learning and growing.
“The topic of ‘fade out’ — the idea that the positive effects of high-quality early education don’t last — continues to trigger debate, and the absence of robust science has prolonged that debate.”
With this approach — capturing the experiences of individual children in even hard-to-reach settings — the study will seek to answer the big questions facing the field, perhaps the most enduring of which is just how tangible and long lasting the benefits of preschool are.
“The topic of ‘fade out’ — the idea that positive effects of high-quality early education don’t last — is one that continues to trigger debate, and the absence of robust science has prolonged that debate,” Jones says. That’s why questions persist about whether preschool is simply not enough to instill lasting benefits, or whether what schools are measuring simply isn’t capturing those benefits.
Instead of focusing on “whether preschool works,” the Early Learning Study will seek to move deeper, to explore what works, for whom, and under what conditions.
“Right now we don’t know enough about the key ingredients of high-quality early learning in 21st-century contexts,” says Jones. “We need to learn more about what has to be there, what can be scaled, and what can be tailored to fit the local context, without compromising on those outcomes.”
- Learn more about the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative.
- Read a Q+A with Professors Jones and Lesaux.
Nonie K. Lesaux's research is driven by the goal of increasing the literacy-learning opportunities for today's linguistically, culturally, and economically diverse students. Bridging developmental and intervention research, her work generates evidence and strategies for policymakers and practitioners.
Stephanie M. Jones researches social-emotional problems and competencies in childhood and adolescence focusing on issues related to inequality and stressed, vulnerable contexts. She also designs, implements and evaluates strategies and programs that integrate social-emotional and academic learning.