More research needed: Early childhood education

Author: Leigh Lynes

For our latest blog series, we talked with three LEO stakeholders from the worlds of academia, philanthropy, and policymaking to get their take on where we need more evidence for smarter decision-making, better services, and increased access to resources. Read the other two stories: Catholic education and policymaking.


LEO’s work spans a variety of issues fundamental to poverty in America, from housing and homelessness to health and criminal justice. Though different on the surface, solving for each of these issues requires a common ingredient—rigorous research on what works. LEO faculty affiliate Professor Chloe Gibbs believes an emerging focus area for LEO somewhat ironically suffers from a lack of research: education.

Gibbs has seen an increased focus on evidence in policymaking in the field of education in the twenty-first century. She has been a part of numerous research projects that study education through the lens of economics which have produced consensus on what works. For example, solid evidence exists for the lifelong benefits and consequences of early childhood education on individual development. What we don’t know is why or how.

Preschool-aged boy playing with water.

According to Chloe, these results could fundamentally change how Americans educate their children. There are many variables in delivering education, from the length of the school day, to class sizes, to work-to-play ratios. Most of these practices originated from legacy decisions made without the benefit of evidence. Chloe points to transformative research on full- versus half-day kindergartens and how they affect children’s developing skills. Random assignment studies show that a full day of kindergarten offers the most benefits, in particular for Hispanic children learning English as a second language. But many other aspects of school curricula remain unstudied, and vary greatly from one school to the next.

Another debate among researchers is between targeted and universal schooling. A universal program strives to include as many individuals as possible, regardless of costs to serve. Targeted programs have stricter eligibility requirements and lower costs, but end up serving higher income families. Emerging research indicates that socio-economic diversity is beneficial to children’s social upbringing, but more focus is needed on how targeted and universal approaches impact diversity.

In 1965, the war on poverty launched some of the first coordinated efforts towards—and investment in—early childhood development. But according to Chloe, while our policy approach to education has remained mostly the same, the tools at our disposal to evaluate and change policy have made significant advances in the past fifty years. If we instead approach education policy with a research lens, Chloe says, disparities across school systems could all but be eliminated. Gibbs believes that applying the lens of an economist to educational issues has the potential to transform our education system, resulting in positive outcomes from a child’s first day of preschool. But she stresses that, when it comes to education, much more research is needed.