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A new Harvard initiative could help fill a big research gap.
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The Harvard Graduate School of Education has recently arrived as a big new player on the early childhood scene, thanks to a $35.5 million grant last month from the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation – the largest ever gift to the graduate school and the second largest gift ever given to a university to advance early childhood education. (The foundation is named for the late Saul Zaentz, a record and movie producer who died in 2014 at age 92.) Harvard will use the funds to launch the Saul Zaentz Early Childhood Initiative to improve research and practice in early education.
A growing body of developmental science underscores that the foundation laid in the 60 months from birth through age 4 is fundamental to all future learning and success. Early childhood has rapidly been moving into the national spotlight as both the public and policymakers increasingly recognize the central role of early childhood education in leveling the playing field for children born into disadvantage. Yet even as the importance of early childhood becomes ever clearer, much of early childhood research remains weak and ill-focused. There’s a lot of work to be done and strong leadership is badly needed. The Zaentz gift could make a big impact in the emerging early childhood field.
The goal of Harvard’s new initiative is a great one: to advance early education as a key strategy for “expanding educational opportunity and improving outcomes” for vulnerable children. The graduate school’s dean, James Ryan, stressed that the grant will give Harvard “the capacity to tackle some of the most important issues and challenges in early childhood education” towards that end. Yet he went on to emphasize the central focus as “basically about how you create high quality pre-K for all kids” – and “pre-K,” whether high quality or otherwise, usually refers to school for 4-year-olds.
Harvard’s new program is called the Early Childhood Initiative, though, not the Pre-K Initiative. “Early childhood” doesn’t mean 4-year-olds; it means all children from birth to age five. And early education doesn’t mean pre-K – it means what’s happening to children for the entire 60 months before they enter kindergarten.
“The way to advance children’s healthy early development is to improve the environments they’re in, in the first months and years of their lives.”
For half a century, we’ve been relying on the public schools as our primary strategy for moving disadvantaged children ahead. Now that we’re focusing on early childhood, it’s easy to fall into the trap of simply thinking more school is the answer. But the best developmental science isn’t telling us that what matters is more school. It’s telling us that what matters are children’s early environments starting at birth, because very young children are rapidly and continuously learning, wherever they are and from whomever they’re with.
So while we’ve long viewed “school” as where children learn, in early childhood that’s just incorrect. Any early environment is a learning environment for young children, whether we call it home, pre-K, child care or grandma’s house. The question is simply the quality of that environment and whether it promotes or impedes children’s learning.
The bottom line is this: The way to advance children’s healthy early development is to improve the environments they’re in, in the first months and years of their lives. Home is clearly most significant. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of low-income children are spending 30, 40 or more hours a week in some kind of out-of-home care, often starting in infancy, while their parents work to support them financially. So after home, the second-most influential environment for many our nation’s most disadvantaged young children is child care.
In fact, the distinction we draw between pre-K and child care is an entirely false one. The only difference from the point of view of child development is that children spend much more time in child care, starting much younger. And no matter what we call it, the more time spent in an environment, the earlier in a child’s life, the more important it is to his development. We can’t tell children to wait until they’re 4 years old and attending pre-K to start learning.
That’s why child care, not pre-K, is our nation’s most important early education program. It’s often a terrible one, but that doesn’t make it any less crucial.
The well-known Abecedarian Project was actually high quality, educational child care, serving poor children for 50 hours a week for five years, starting just after birth and continuing until they entered kindergarten. A rigorous study begun half a century ago has shown extraordinarily positive, long-term outcomes – far stronger than those of any pre-K program that’s been studied.
Yet beyond the Abecedarian study, while hundreds of studies have been conducted on pre-K over the last decades, almost no research has been done on the quality or impact of out-of-home care. We don’t know its effect on children, either short-term or long-term; we don’t know what drives those effects; we don’t know what characteristics are critical for children’s learning and which aren’t. We don’t know its potential to advance children nor do we know its potential to harm them.
Given the huge number of disadvantaged children who spend the majority of their waking hours in out-of-home care from birth on, this is an enormous, glaring gap in early childhood research that urgently needs to be filled. Indeed, Harvard would make an invaluable contribution by starting to fill it.
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