What Works in Early Childhood Education? An Open Letter to Legislators

Dear State Legislators:

With 220 bills related to early childhood education pending in 36 states, we don’t need to remind any of you of the importance of early learning. But it’s easier to say what matters most for young children than to specify what works to provide it, and program evaluation results can be hard to translate into practice. As a starting point, we have reviewed the research on early childhood learning programs for very young children to guide further research and to help you shape and carry out the early childhood initiatives you decide to move forward.

To be blunt, most early childhood education research is of limited use in vital efforts to get all American children started on the right track to learn and succeed. Some excellent program evaluations done decades ago are now simply too old to be of use. Although many studies have found positive effects for early childhood education more generally, much of that research is also dated, informing programs for a different generation of children in different settings. Many other studies don’t answer key questions about what matters most for early learning in today’s world of working families, stressed communities, and struggling K-12 education systems. Still other studies lack the depth or rigor those of you committed to evidence-based policy-making now demand.

But if the research we have on early learning programs is limited, brain science and research on child development are burgeoning. And both contribute to a growing scientific consensus on the importance of the first years of life to success in school, work, and society.

Unfortunately, not all children have the same chance of being born into safe, stimulating environments with supportive adults around them—factors that brain science highlights as critical for development. Many infants and toddlers, especially poor and minority children, experience both environmental and contextual toxic stress that makes certain hormone levels rise and jeopardizes brain development [National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2014]. Waiting until these children reach elementary school or even later to intervene and protect them from toxic stress and build resilience can be very costly and, though far better than doing nothing, may benefit them less than early intervention would.

Here are two well-documented facts that might guide your decisions in investing in children who live in tumultuous or impoverished environments:

  • By age 3, children from lower-income families have heard 30 million fewer words than same-age children in better off families. Later, these poorer children have relatively smaller vocabularies, weaker reading skills, and lower test scores [Fernald, Marchman, & Weisleder, 2013; Hart & Risley, 1995].
  • Children exposed to extreme poverty and other stresses early in life are more likely to drop out of high school, be unemployed, and wind up in the criminal justice system [Wagmiller & Adelman, 2009].

Four kinds of programs have been developed to respond to the huge opportunity gap implied by facts like these. But evidence of program effectiveness varies:

  • Early childhood education and care programs, which aim to boost child development, have registered generally positive results, but few studies of their impacts have been long-term or rigorous, and some are simply out of date.
  • Home visitation and parental support programs, typically targeting parents and focusing on health, have also had positive impacts but need more rigorous study to resolve some inconsistent findings.
  • Family income and support programs, which provide nutritional resources, cash, or work leave, also show potential but it’s undercut by unknowns—though strong evidence that the Earned Income Tax Credit helps children and families is ample.
  • Pediatric screeners, child abuse prevention, and early intervention services have a mixed record, but some child- abuse prevention and child-welfare interventions look highly promising.

Besides conducting new and better research on what works, the need now is to base strategy on what research does suggest:

  • Support high quality education.  Early childhood providers and teachers should have a background in child development and previous work experience with infants, toddlers, and preschool-aged children. Also, teachers should receive ongoing training and professional development covering curriculum, child development, assessment use, classroom interaction, classroom management, and family engagement. The quality of the environment, and interactions among the teacher, child, and the child’s families, research suggests, are key.
  • Create rich and safe learning environments. A key need is to increase the knowledge of providers, teachers, and parents of the importance and the elements of rich learning environments, particularly those that support language and literacy development.  Also, reducing or eliminating the preventable causes of toxic stress—say, poverty, violence, housing instability, and discrimination—are wise investments.
  • Build supportive relationships in families. Research has shown that parents’ active engagement in their children’s early learning supports children’s school readiness and academic achievement. Parents who receive parental training, understand how to support learning, and engage in their children’s learning have offspring who do better in school and on academic achievement.

Creating research-based paths to greater equality of opportunity is essential to investing wisely in the children who will become America’s labor force, citizenry, and leaders. However far from a silver bullet, starting with what we know and building on that by collecting and synthesizing evidence, monitoring progress, correcting mistakes, and investing in what matters most are the right ways to help our youngest children. Please prioritize investing in experiences that will have lasting positive effects on lifelong learning and success. Early childhood experiences do matter.


                                                                                      Eboni Howard


Eboni Howard is a managing researcher at AIR.