The findings of the federally funded studies that were the focus of this meeting offer promise for valid conclusions regarding the effectiveness of early childhood interventions in improving classroom practices and promoting children's school readiness. There is also a growing body of literature on the professional development approaches associated with teaching practice and children's outcomes. However, there are still large gaps in our knowledge base about exactly the questions of greatest concern to the fieldwhat works for which children, under which conditions, and for which outcomes. The conceptual and methodological challenges that remain suggest some strategic next steps to inform a future research agenda, which emerged from the meeting.
Improving Programs and Practices
- Professional development approaches should be developed to support classroom practices that have been shown to foster the developmental outcomes that we would like children to achieve. Professional development should be based on objectives for children's development rather than on specific curriculum.
- Researchers and practitioners should explore how interventions for three- and four-year-olds can be integrated with interventions focusing on infants and toddlers. Research suggests that the achievement gap can be seen as early as 24 months (Schultz, Halle, Forry, & Vick, 2008), and children from low-income families are nearly nine months behind their more advantaged peers by the time they are three-years-old (Layzer & Price, 2008). Therefore, it is critical that we think about how to intervene earlier than ages three or four and identify effective birth to five models.
- Early childhood experiences should be aligned with expectations and goals for kindergarten and elementary school. Research shows that children from low-income families enter schools of lower quality than their more advantages counterparts (e.g., Lee & Loeb, 1995; Stipek, 2004). Therefore, even if children are given a boost by attending high-quality preschool programs, these effects may fade if children do not continue to be provided with high-quality care and learning experiences.
- Ways to involve parents more effectively in early childhood programs should be identified. Research suggests that parent involvement is critical to children's early learning (Comer & Haynes, 1991; Kohl, Lengua, & McMahon, 2000; Ritblatt, Beatty, Cronan, & Ochoa 2002; Snow, Barnes, Chandler, Goodman, & Hemphill, 1991). However, there is not yet clear evidence of how to integrate a parenting component to produce an effective, comprehensive early childhood model for preschool-aged children.
- Characteristics of teachers and providers should be considered in developing interventions and professional development approaches, and to include and consider nontraditional learners. There are rising expectations of early educators/caregivers. Some members of the early childhood workforce may find it difficult to implement new approaches, or may disagree with the recommendations coming from the research field. It will be important for future interventions/programs to include efforts to improve educators'/caregivers' human and/or social capital (e.g., consider strategies to support psychological well-being).
Connecting Research, Practice, and Policy
- Researchers, practitioners and policy makers should work together to develop a comprehensive, valid definition of school readiness, with delineation of thresholds in different outcome areas that could be applied across different programs or interventions.
- As research on intervention dosage emerges, findings can inform programmatic decisions about part-day versus full-day programs; school-year versus full-year programs; and one year versus multiple year programs.
- To to fully understand costs and educational benefits of early childhood interventions, studies should be designed to include follow-up of short-term effects into school.
- Criteria should be developed to determine when there is sufficient evidence to take an intervention to scale.
In sum, the recent body of federally-funded early childhood research represents an important advance in the use of more rigorous randomized designs to evaluate the effectiveness of early childhood program enhancements, curricula, and approaches to professional development. Despite this tremendous progress, many questions remain about how best to train early childhood providers, how to improve school readiness among low-income children, and how to narrow the school readiness gap. Future work must better define goals for children's school readiness, including exploration of what skills are required to enable children to succeed in school rather than falling further behind. Defining these goals for children will also inform objectives for professional development and early childhood interventions. In addition, approaches to measuring the school readiness gap in months can provide a more intuitive way of interpreting and judging intervention impacts. Finally, future research must continue to explore substantive questions about training and implementation, other programmatic issues, and school readiness domains.