The Expanding Children’s Early Learning (ExCEL) Network


With broad support across the political spectrum, states and localities throughout the country are expanding preschool programs for low-income children. While the public will is strong and the experience to date is encouraging, there is a need for firmer evidence on the most cost-effective ways to produce lasting impacts for children, especially when programs operate on a large scale. Fortunately, the current expanded investments in early childhood programs offer a unique opportunity to provide concrete lessons to guide policy and practice.

Launched in 2014, the Expanding Children’s Early Learning (ExCEL) Network is a collaboration led by MDRC that aims to engage local officials, preschool providers, and researchers as active partners in innovation and evidence building, while also benefiting from ongoing contributions from other experts in the policymaking, practitioner, and advocacy communities.

The initiative consists of complementary projects that seek to answer two fundamental questions central to the successful expansion of effective preschool programs:

  • How can positive outcomes for children be sustained from preschool programs into the elementary grades and beyond?

  • What combinations of curricula and professional development help teachers improve preschool quality and maximize improvements in children’s outcomes?

In both cases, the focus will be on four-year-olds who are scheduled to enter kindergarten in the next academic year. Special efforts will be made to recruit and engage significant percentages of children from low-income families and children whose home language is not English. Doing so will make it possible to evaluate program effectiveness for children who may be especially vulnerable to lagging behind their peers in school readiness and later achievement.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

Two core projects are planned.

ExCEL P-3: Promoting Sustained Gains from Preschool to Third Grade. Boston Public Schools has begun phasing in what will be a system-wide integrated curriculum that emphasizes the need for instruction in each grade that builds on the lessons and skills children learned in the previous grade. MDRC is conducting a study that will provide especially rich data on the effect of the aligned instruction, while also exploring other potential influences on sustaining preschool gains.

ExCEL Quality: Improving Preschool Instruction Through Curricula, Coaching, and Training. This demonstration addresses a critical decision that goes to the heart of program effectiveness: the selection of the best combination of curricula and professional development to improve teacher practices and child outcomes. In four localities, MDRC will compare the implementation, impact, and cost-effectiveness of: (1) a “business-as-usual” control condition that reflects the localities’ current mix of curricula and standard professional development; (2) a widely used comprehensive curriculum supported by intensive professional development; and (3) a different integrated, interdisciplinary curriculum focused on math, science, literacy, and social-emotional learning, also supported by intensive professional development.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

ExCEL P-3’s study of Boston’s aligned curriculum is currently under way. ExCEL Quality is taking place in Columbus, OH, Indianapolis, IN, Los Angeles, CA, and St. Louis, MO.

Follow-up data collection and the analysis and presentation of the findings will unfold over three to four years.