Proceedings from a Working Meeting on School Readiness Research: Guiding the Synthesis of Early Childhood Research. Background

12/15/2009

The school readiness gap has received increasing attention over the last two decades.  Evidence suggests that children from low-income homes are entering school significantly behind their peers from more resourced homes.  Research consistently shows that children's readiness for school when they enter kindergarten is associated with socioeconomic status (Lee and Burkam, 2002; Magnuson and Duncan, 2005; Hart and Risley, 1995).  Furthermore, children who enter school behind their peers rarely catch up. The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K), a nationally representative study of children in kindergarten in 1998-1999, has documented the school readiness gap at kindergarten entry; cognitive scores among children in the highest SES group are 60% higher than those of children in the lowest SES group (Lee & Burkam, 2002).

Concerns about the readiness gap have led to efforts to develop strategies for enhancing children's development in ways that ready them for school.  Educators have turned to early care and education as a potential developmental intervention.  Evidence of the potential benefits of early care and education programs is based primarily on a few small-scale, carefully controlled experimental studies of educational interventions that have suggested the ability of high-quality preschool interventions to enhance the school readiness of low-income children.  The evidence of the school readiness gap, combined with descriptive data indicating that children in early childhood care and education programs can make cognitive and socioemotional gains has motivated the federal government to sponsor a number of early childhood education programs that focus on serving children from low-income families, including Head Start, Early Head Start, and Even Start.

The federal government has also conducted studies examining the effectiveness of these programs for promoting school readiness.  In the 1990's, the Federal government conducted a series of rigorously-designed Congressionally-mandated evaluations of early childhood programs, such as the Head Start Impact Study, the National Evaluation of the Even Start Program, and the Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project. Additionally, the government funded a substantial body of research focused on expanding knowledge about the specific practices, interventions, and curricula that can successfully improve school readiness among children from low-income families and can do so across diverse settings. This research focused primarily on evaluations of quality enhancements to existing programs. The research included:

  • The Preschool Curriculum Evaluation and Research (PCER) effort led by the Institute of Education Sciences in the US Department of Education, which involved 13 randomized studies of selected off-the-shelf curricula[2] as well as a cross-site evaluation.
  • The Interagency School Readiness Consortium (ISRC), funded by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) in the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the U.S. Department of Education, which involved eight randomized studies of innovative, newly developed school readiness interventions that incorporate an integrated focus on cognitive, literacy, and socioemotional aspects of development.
  • The Evaluation of Child Care Subsidy Strategies, funded by ACF, included two experimental evaluations of quality enhancement strategies one in child care centers (Project Upgrade) and the other in family child care settings (Massachusetts Family Child Care Study).
  • The Quality Interventions for Early Care and Education (QUINCE) study, funded by ACF and ASPE, evaluated the effectiveness of two child care provider training models in enhancing the quality of family home or child care classrooms and promoting positive outcomes in children.

By the fall of 2008, final results from PCER and Project Upgrade had been released and preliminary findings from the ISRC studies were beginning to emerge.

Synthesizing the findings from this now large body of evaluation research is critical for identifying its contributions to our existing knowledge base and informing a future research agenda. In an effort to begin this synthesis and examine the body of evidence emerging from these studies, a meeting of experts was convened entitled, A Working Meeting on Recent School Readiness Research: Guiding the Synthesis of Early Childhood Research.

In preparation for the meeting, a series of working papers were commissioned by ASPE and OPRE and were prepared by experts in the field. The papers focus on the findings from the most recent set of federally funded studies.  The meeting was organized around these papers; authors of the papers presented their findings, with prepared commentary by respondents.  The meeting was designed to use the papers as the jumping-off point for open discussion among meeting attendees about the state of the science, how it may inform early childhood programs, gaps in our knowledge, and directions for future research.

An overview of the proceedings, summary of key themes identified during the meeting, and identified next steps are presented below.

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