What Really Works in Early Childhood Education? These Funders Want to Know

Whenever a particular idea or program moves to the center of national debate, you can bet that there will be intense scrutiny of its effectiveness. That's certainly the case now with early childhood education.

Late last year, President Obama unveiled the Invest in US initiative, designed to put more than a $1 billion in federal and philanthropic spending into early childhood programs. A group of funders, including the Gates, LEGO, Kresge, and Kellogg foundations, put more than $300 million into the initiative to complement the $750 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Meanwhile, funders have been working to answer the question of which early childhood education programs are the most effective over time, and therefore, most deserving of support from initiatives such as Invest in US. It's a hugely important question, obviously, since not all ECE efforts deliver the same bang for the buck, and it's crucial that policymakers get behind the right approach. And politically, it will be easier to expand pre-K if advocates have powerful evidence of its benefits. 

All of which helps explain why, in 2011, the Robin Hood Foundation began the planning for a multi-year research endeavor known as the Early Childhood Research Initiative (ECRI).

ECRI is now in the second program year of an effort that is slated to end in 2020, with the release of the final report. Robin Hood Foundation partnered with social policy evaluation firm MDRC, which has a long track record of conducting education studies. Funding for ECRI comes from the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Salomon Family Foundation, and the Overdeck Family Foundation.

ECRI aligns closely with the interests of all three funders. Heising-Simons is an intriguing foundation we've written about several times lately, with ambitious work in the area of environment, science, and educationall bankrolled by the hedge fund fortune of James Simons, the father of foundation co-founder and president, Liz Simons. Early childhood education is a major passion of this funder. Liz Simons was previously a teacher and founded an summer early childhood education program called Stretch to Kindergarten. Heising-Simons Foundation has funded multiple ECE projects, including research and evaluation work, and it's made grants to the Robin Hood Foundation and MDRC worth more than $6 million since 2012, when ECRI was in its planning and pilot phases.

Related - Heising-Simons Foundation: Grants for Early Childhood Education

Early childhood education, along with STEM, is also a key interest for the Overdeck Family Foundation, headed by John and Laura Overdeck. In 2013, the Overdecks gave $1.5 million to ECRI. John Overdeck is a director of the Robin Hood Foundation. The Overdecks have also supported the Harlem Children’s Zone through its early impact strategy. (As an aside, John Overdeck and James Simons are both math whizzes turned hedge fund winners turned philanthropists, so it's not surprising when we find Overdeck and Simons money behind the same work.)

Related - What Is This Wall Street Quant Worried About? STEM Education, Naturally

Salomon’s funding mostly focuses on treatment of child abuse, with particular emphasis on sexual abuse. Together, the Robin Hood Foundation, MDRC, and the three funders hope the multi-year study of various EC interventions will yield definitive conclusions on the programs with the greatest impact.

Previous research, such as the work of economist James Heckman, shows that effective early childhood programs have greater impact than interventions delivered later in children’s lives. However, the positive effects of many early childhood programs diminish over time. Past studies of Head Start, for example, suggest that the benefits of the program fade as children grow older. Defenders of Head Start, however, contend that such conclusions are based on a narrow reading of the data.

Another problem is that many studies of early childhood education programs do not conduct follow-up monitoring beyond subjects’ entry into kindergarten. ECRI’s design will examine multiple early childhood programs and track the children in such programs through third grade, the level at which research suggests that reasonable predictions about future educational achievements can be made.

ECRI is a major research endeavor, but it's by no means alone in gathering more empirical evidence on EC. Previously, I've reported on efforts by a pair of Texas funders to gather more and better data on EC programs, as well as work by the Kellogg Foundation to help Oklahoma unify data sources across agencies and EC programs

Some state legislatures, as well as the GOP-dominated Congress, have been less than enthusiastic about funding ECE programs, regarding many interventions as unproven and a dubious use of tax dollars. Let’s hope the work of ECRI and similar efforts across the country will yield convincing information about the programs that work.