teacher plays with toys at a table with three young children

How Researchers, Policymakers and Practitioners Can Partner to Improve Early Childhood Education

In a new volume, researchers highlight the ways partnerships between researchers and policymakers are a promising approach to effectively expanding high quality early childhood education.

Audrey Breen

Early childhood programs can have lasting impacts for children, and decades of research shows that high quality early childhood learning opportunities can help children, families and society. This research has led many states and cities to invest in expanding access to early learning programs. But according to researchers at the University of Virginia and New York University, efforts to take high quality early childhood education (ECE) to scale have not always yielded the expected benefits.

Daphna Bassok, associate professor of education and public policy at the UVA School of Education and Human Development and the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, and Pamela Morris, professor of applied psychology at the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, are co-editors of a new volume aimed at highlighting the ways partnerships between researchers and policymakers are a promising approach to effectively expanding high quality ECE.

“Too often there is a disconnect between the questions researchers tackle and the ones that are most urgent and salient for policymakers or practitioners,” Bassok said. “The findings from rigorous, well-designed research studies may not be particularly useful for addressing the real-world complexity that educators and policymakers face.

“The idea of Research Practice Partnerships is that through close collaborations, researchers can do work that helps policymakers address the big problems they are tackling on a timeline that’s fast enough to actually inform change.”

In a new volume of The Future of Children published this week, entitled “Research-Practice Partnerships to Improve Early Childhood Education,” Bassok and Morris argue that partnerships between researchers, policymakers and practitioners can help move the conversation away from whether early childhood programs can make a difference and toward how to build high quality early childhood opportunities at scale.

“As an example, there has been a lot of fantastic research on effective professional development programs for early childhood teachers,” Bassok said. “We know these programs can help teachers improve. But in practice, teacher turnover in early childhood programs is often so high that programs many not get the expected returns on their professional development investments. 

“In our research, we find that nearly half of childcare teachers leave their jobs from one year to the next. Our partners need help tackling those stability problems before they can get to the other quality improvement pieces.”

Bassok and her team at the University of Virginia have been working in long-term partnerships with ECE policymakers and practitioners in Virginia and Louisiana. With the Virginia Department of Education and the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation, they recently evaluated the state’s new Teacher Recognition Program, which provides early childhood teachers with financial supports.

“We did the first large-scale experiment on the effects of financial supports for early educators and found that relatively small increases in pay led to significant drops in teacher turnover among childcare teachers,” Bassok said.

Based in part on these findings, the state recently allocated additional funds for compensation supports for early educators.

Research Policy Partnerships have proven particularly important in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Morris, who led a long-term partnership in NYC and provided early educators with materials to support their remote teaching.

“The pandemic created large gaps in the services provided to our youngest learners and opened the door for new collaborations as policy systems raced to meet children’s needs,” said Morris. “In this context, RPPs can support efforts to rebuild and reimagine [early childhood education] systems that can help all of our nation’s children acquire strong foundations for kindergarten and beyond.”

The Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Project (VKRP), another early childhood partnership between the Virginia Department of Education and researchers at the UVA Education School, is also highlighted in the volume. Over the past few years Amanda Williford, research associate professor, helped develop and scale up a measure that comprehensively assesses school readiness in kindergarteners. When the pandemic hit, Virginia policymakers and educators were concerned about its impact for young children and their development.

The VKRP team added new items to the assessment inviting teachers to report on their students’ mental wellbeing and indicate if they were concerned about a child’s social-emotional or mental health.

“Teachers reported that having these items helped them reflect on children’s mental health experiences in ways that they wouldn’t have if they had not been asked to complete them,” Williford said. “This feedback is helpful for policymakers and school leaders as they make decisions on how best to serve students and teachers during and after the pandemic.”

Bassok and Morris acknowledge that building partnerships between researchers and policymakers can be difficult.

“Policymakers often have to make decisions on timelines that are much faster than it usually takes researchers to conduct rigorous studies,” Bassok noted. “The challenge and fun part is finding the sweet spots, the projects that provide timely and useful information to our partners and also inform a broader conversation about building high quality early childhood systems.”

The volume concludes with a series of commentaries, including one from Bob Pianta, dean of the UVA School of Education and Human Development. Writing as a researcher and a dean, Pianta discusses the role universities can and should play in supporting RPPs.

Virginia Policy Partnership Collaborative

This work is part of the ongoing efforts aimed at connecting UVA researchers and students with education policymakers to address pressing education problems in the Commonwealth through careful research.

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