Over the last several decades, a robust body of evidence has emerged linking early childhood investments—in high-quality childcare, early learning, home visiting, and more—to better health and well-being, sometimes years later in adulthood. Especially for low-income children, these supports can help mitigate the negative effects of challenging or stressful environments, and set them on a life-long trajectory of positive health development. With this evidence in hand, policymakers and practitioners across the country are piloting, testing, and refining approaches to supporting children and families in their communities.

On July 12, the Urban Institute and Policies for Action convened a forum to share P4A’s latest findings on early education’s lasting effects on health and well-being, and learn from policymakers who are designing and implementing programs at both the city and state levels. The event drew a diverse audience from both the education and health sectors, and our conversation explored how we can foster more actionable evidence to advance both policy and practice to achieve better, more equitable health outcomes for children in this country.

Policies for Action research

Sherry Glied, lead principal investigator of the Policies for Action Research Hub at New York University Wagner Graduate School, presented her team’s work studying health outcomes for children enrolled in NYC’s new universal pre-kindergarten program. The four-year-olds in the program were significantly more likely to be screened and diagnosed with asthma or vision and hearing problems. Glied underscored that this kind of research can be instrumental in “making the case” for high-quality early childhood investments: “We do have these opportunities to deploy data and analytic techniques that really can support policymaking and support policymakers. … Having the evidence does give the people who want to push the policy forward some momentum and some energy.”

Rich Neimand of the Neimand Collaborative, who works to amplify and translate James Heckman’s portfolio of research on high-quality early childhood programming, presented on the Heckman team’s latest cost-benefit analysis of two randomized-controlled preschool experiments conducted in North Carolina in the 1970’s. While the costs of comprehensive early childhood education are high, the research team found that for every dollar spent, these programs could deliver a 13.7 percent per child, per year return on investment through better outcomes in health, education, and employment. “This is really powerful evidence that we need to have a scaffolding of family support around low-income families. Making that investment more than pays for itself,” Neimand explained.

Later, Danielle Ewen of EducationCounsel reminded us that “we have history, and science, and research on our side as we’re having these conversations. This new research adds value and helps make the case, but our history has always been one of linking early childhood and health.” She cited the long-standing research on Head Start, toxic stress, and adverse childhood events, and even the work studying interventions for babies born addicted to crack cocaine in the 1980s and 90s. Tonja Rucker, of the National League of Cities, echoed these views: “Mayors and cities are taking advantage of studies to hold their ground—not to lose funding [on existing programs]. But translating the research into practical action steps in terms of programs and policies—there’s more need for that.”

Looking forward

“How do we make these connections more intentional, in terms of more collaborative funding, more collaborative programs, more collaborative policies?” asked Albert Wat of the Alliance for Early Success. His emphasis on the word “collaborative” was a recurring theme. Each of our panelists urged more seamless coordination between early childhood and health advocates, agencies and policymakers. However, like many cross-sector endeavors, breaking down entrenched silos is not easy.

One challenge our panelists identified is sharing data between partners. “Until you can get people to sit at a table and agree that we can share this information and not infringe on anyone’s turf, we really can’t make the progress we need to make,” noted Gayle Manchin, Cabinet Secretary of the West Virginia Department of Education and the Arts. Back in the early 2000s, her state made the unprecedented move to unite the West Virginia Board of Education and West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources to design a statewide universal pre-k program. Yet, despite nearly two decades of collaboration, it can still be a challenge to convince partners to share data. But as Laudy Aron, P4A codirector and panel moderator, noted, this kind of data integration can be a “gold mine” for researchers, and it is critical to understanding the full impact of comprehensive programs on children’s health and well-being.

The panelists also emphasized the importance of increased dialogue and cooperation between researchers and policymakers and practitioners. Local leaders need immediate feedback on programs as they decide to sustain or expand existing efforts, while longer-term evaluations are needed to document widespread lasting impacts. Researchers need to be equipped to do both. That means baking in evaluation funding at the outset of a program, and maintaining a long-term commitment from philanthropic or other sources to support researchers studying the effects of policies over time.

Finally, researchers need to be ready to ask the critical questions about how current economic and social realities are shaping the futures of young children. It is not an exaggeration to say that we are facing an epidemic of substance abuse in this country, and “research will need to help us understand the long-term effects… on our children,” noted Manchin.

Forging partnerships to inform evidence-based policy

Gayle Manchin left us with an important reminder: only through research will you “know where you start, realize how far you’ve come, and understand what you’ve got to look forward to in the future.” Researchers must do a better job of engaging with practitioners, policymakers and advocates, and understanding the questions that they need answers to today. But there’s hope, according to Marge Turner of the Urban Institute: “We’re working to get better at that, while also preserving our reputations for objectivity, and independence and truth-telling.”

To watch the recording of the event, click here.  

What additional research is needed to inform and move policies around high-quality early childhood education forward? Let us know your thoughts on Twitter at @Policies4Action.

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