Seeking Answers to Big Questions

MDRC’s Portfolio in Early Childhood Education

More than one in five American children lives in poverty. By the time they start kindergarten, these children are already behind their middle-class peers in reading and math, and that gap only widens as they continue in school. More than 40 years ago, though, seminal studies showed that comprehensive and high-quality preschool programs could have tremendous, lasting effects on these children’s lives. In the last 15 years, the movement has picked up steam, with more and more states and localities expanding access to preschool. Today, everyone from President Obama to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is calling for new investments in preschool. But many important questions remain about how to make the most of the promise of preschool. MDRC’s portfolio of research and demonstration projects is tackling these big questions, among others:

How can preschools help young children to regulate their emotions and interact productively with their peers and their teachers, so that they can thrive academically?

Many preschool interventions focus on academic concepts. But low-income preschool children also face many risks to their social-emotional development that can affect their school experiences and social outcomes for years to come. While we believe academic interventions are important (we are testing one ourselves, as described below), we also believe social and emotional development is a critical foundation upon which to build. In fact, equipping teachers to foster the social-emotional development of children and to defuse behavioral issues helps them to better manage their classrooms, leaving more time for instruction.

In 2007, MDRC and its academic research partners designed Foundations of Learning, which trained preschool teachers in Newark and Chicago to encourage children’s positive behaviors and minimize their disruptive ones. The results were clear: compared with control group children, children from Foundations of Learning classrooms were more attentive, controlled their impulses better, and had fewer problem behaviors and better short-term memory. Teachers also spent more time productively and less on discipline. Unfortunately, we found no evidence that children did better academically.

In Head Start CARES, which began implementation in 2009, we are testing three different ways to affect children’s behavior and emotional development, each based in a different theory, in 300 classrooms and 100 Head Start centers across the country. We just released a report on the implementation of the interventions and their effects on teacher practice. Later in 2014, we will release findings showing how these programs affect children’s behavior, emotional development, and academic performance in preschool and kindergarten.

What kind of professional development models are successful at strengthening teaching in preschool classrooms on a large scale?

Some advocates, researchers, and policymakers feel it is important for all preschool teachers to be professionally certified or have advanced degrees; others disagree. MDRC is addressing this question from another perspective: can professional development that includes intensive and continuing training and coaching change the classroom practices of preschool teachers with a wide range of credentials and skill? In Foundations of Learning, teachers who attended training and coaching did change their classroom behavior in ways that benefited children. A less intensive model was tested on a larger scale in Head Start CARES. Early findings suggest that teachers who were assigned to use the enhancements, training, and coaching tested in Head Start CARES did change their classroom practice.

Can preschool teachers more effectively support math skills in young children, and does that help them succeed in the early years of school?

Recent nonexperimental evidence suggests that early math skills are particularly important to future success in school and that math is often overlooked in preschool classrooms. In the 2012-2013 school year, MDRC completed a pilot test of Making Pre-K Count, a math-focused early childhood intervention that we helped design with our partners. A full-scale test began in the fall of 2013 in nearly 200 New York City preschool classrooms. It will track children through at least third grade.

Do the modest benefits found for Head Start on average mask important variations?

The national Head Start Impact Study (conducted by Westat and its partners), which released its final report in 2010, found that while low-income preschoolers do receive modest benefits from the program, those benefits fade quickly, almost completely disappearing by the end of the first grade. The study covered a great many Head Start centers, though, so the average benefits and average erosion of those benefits could be masking significant variation. MDRC has begun working with researchers from New York University and Harvard to conduct new analyses on the Head Start Impact Study’s data. If we can identify components of Head Start programs that are associated with better results, we can start designing new studies to replicate what works.

What are effective ways of engaging parents in children’s early learning? What works best on a large scale, and for which populations?

Parents are children’s first teachers. Some early childhood experts would argue that to have the greatest effect programs should start in the home, when children are far younger than preschool age. Home visiting programs address this concern; some begin interacting with families even during pregnancy, and continue until a child is as old as 5, and some have shown significant effects on children’s emotional well-being, health, and achievement in school.

As part of the Affordable Care Act, Congress provided $1.5 billion to greatly expand these programs through the Maternal, Infant, Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program. States can choose among program models that have shown some evidence of success in previous trials. In 2011, MDRC launched a large-scale evaluation of local programs that use the four models that have been selected by at least 10 states each. The size of the evaluation — encompassing more than 5,100 families at 85 locations — should allow us not only to identify which programs have the greatest effects overall, but why some programs are more effective than others, and which approaches work best with different types of families.

Recently, MDRC and Johns Hopkins University also published an extensive review of the most rigorous studies of family engagement, focused on literacy, math, and social-emotional outcomes for children ages 3 through 8. This work will inform current family-centered practices, research, and policy, and provide direction for future research.

This two-pager is one of a series highlighting MDRC’s current and past work in celebration of MDRC’s 40th Anniversary in 2014.

*             *             * 

MDRC is grateful to the funders of the projects discussed here, including the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Robin Hood Foundation, the George Gund Foundation, the Grable Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, McCormick Foundation, the Nicholson Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.



Document Details

Publication Type
Issue Focus
March 2014
2014. “Seeking Answers to Big Questions.” New York: MDRC.