Bridging the gap between preschool policy, practice, and research
At the MIT Blueprint Labs Preschool Research Convening, practitioners present studies on early childhood education and discuss future directions.
Jan. 10, 2024 • 7 min • Source
Preschool in the United States has grown dramatically in the past several decades. From 1970 to 2018, preschool enrollment increased from 38 percent to 64 percent of eligible students. Fourteen states are currently discussing preschool expansion , with seven likely to pass some form of universal eligibility within the next calendar year. Amid this expansion, families, policymakers, and practitioners want to better understand preschools’ impacts and the factors driving preschool quality.
To address these and other questions, MIT Blueprint Labs recently held a Preschool Research Convening that brought researchers, funders, practitioners, and policymakers to Nashville, Tennessee, to discuss the future of preschool research. Parag Pathak, the Class of 1922 Professor of Economics at MIT and a Blueprint Labs co-founder and director, opened by sharing the goals of the convening: “Our goals for the next two days are to identify pressing, unanswered research questions and connect researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and funders. We also hope to craft a compelling research agenda.”
Pathak added, “Given preschool expansion nationwide, we believe now is the moment to centralize our efforts and create knowledge to inform pressing decisions. We aim to generate rigorous preschool research that will lead to higher-quality and more equitable preschool.”
Over 75 participants hailing from universities, early childhood education organizations, school districts, state education departments, and national policy organizations attended the convening, held Nov. 13-14. Through panels, presentations, and conversations, participants discussed essential subjects in the preschool space, built the foundations for valuable partnerships, and formed an actionable and inclusive research agenda.
Among research works presented was a recent paper by Blueprint Labs affiliate Jesse Bruhn, an assistant professor of economics at Brown University and co-author Emily Emick, also of Brown, reviewing the state of lottery-based preschool research. They found that random evaluations from the past 60 years demonstrate that preschool improves children’s short-run academic outcomes, but those effects fade over time. However, positive impacts re-emerge in the long term through improved outcomes like high school graduation and college enrollment. Limited rigorous research studies children’s behavioral outcomes or the factors that lead to high-quality preschool, though trends from preliminary research suggest that full-day programs, language immersion programs, and specific curricula may benefit children.
An earlier Blueprint Labs study that was also presented at the convening is the only recent lottery-based study to provide insight on preschool’s long-term impacts. The work, conducted by Pathak and two others, reveals that enrolling in Boston Public Schools’ universal preschool program boosts children’s likelihood of graduating high school and enrolling in college. Yet, the preschool program had little detectable impact on elementary, middle, and high school state standardized test scores. The improvement in long-term outcomes, the researchers suggest, may be related to ongoing skill formation or other behavioral changes: Students who attended Boston preschool were less likely to be suspended or incarcerated in high school. However, research on preschool’s impacts on behavioral outcomes is limited; it remains an important area for further study. Future work could also fill in other gaps in research, such as access, alternative measures of student success, and variation across geographic contexts and student populations.
More data sought
State policy leaders also spoke at the event, including Lisa Roy, executive director of the Colorado Department of Early Childhood, and Sarah Neville-Morgan, deputy superintendent in the Opportunities for All Branch at the California Department of Education. Local practitioners, such as Elsa Holguín, president and CEO of the Denver Preschool Program, and Kristin Spanos, CEO of First 5 Alameda County, as well as national policy leaders including Lauren Hogan, managing director of policy and professional advancement at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, also shared their perspectives.
In panel discussions held throughout the kickoff, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers shared their perspectives on pressing questions for future research, including: What practices define high-quality preschool? How does preschool affect family systems and the workforce? How can we expand measures of effectiveness to move beyond traditional assessments? What can we learn from preschool’s differential impacts across time, settings, models, and geographies?
Panelists also discussed the need for reliable data, sharing that “the absence of data allows the status quo to persist.” Several sessions focused on involving diverse stakeholders in the research process, highlighting the need for transparency, sensitivity to community contexts, and accessible communication about research findings.
On the second day of the Preschool Research Convening, Pathak shared with attendees, “One of our goals… is to forge connections between all of you in this room and support new partnerships between researchers and practitioners. We hope your conversations are the launching pad for future collaborations.” Jason Sachs, the deputy director of early learning at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and former director of early childhood at Boston Public Schools, provided closing remarks.
The convening laid the groundwork for a research agenda and new research partnerships that can help answer questions about what works, in what context, for which kids, and under which conditions. Answers to these questions will be fundamental to ensure preschool expands in the most evidence-informed and equitable way possible.
With this goal in mind, Blueprint Labs aims to create a new Preschool Research Collaborative to equip practitioners, policymakers, funders, and researchers with rigorous, actionable evidence on preschool performance. Pathak states, “We hope this collaborative will foster evidence-based decision-making that improves children's short- and long-term outcomes.” The connections and research agenda formed at the Preschool Research Convening are the first steps toward achieving that goal.Reprinted with permission of MIT News
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