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Historic Crisis, Historic Opportunity: New ECE Research Looks Back and Ahead

Although young children are more resilient to the health effects of Covid, the global pandemic hit them with stunning force. In the face of this historic challenge, how did we do? According to a recently published synthesis of national, state and local research…not great. The changes in learning location probably interfered with development, and the time and quality of instruction dropped, despite efforts to plug the holes with remote learning. The big question now is what we do about the early childhood education (ECE) landscape that has emerged.

“This crisis is a potential launch pad for a more coherent system. And this is the time to change how we administer ECE today and imagine it for tomorrow.” — Dr. Christina Weiland, School of Education, University of Michigan

Professor Christina Weiland of the University of Michigan’s Education Policy Initiative is the lead author of “Historic Crisis, Historic Opportunity: Using Evidence to Mitigate the Effects of the COVID-19 Crisis on Young Children and Early Care and Education Programs,” a joint effort with researchers from the Urban Institute, MDRC, RAND, the National Institute for Early Education Research and several universities. The researchers also collaborated with 10 policy leaders from across the country. The paper supports both immediate policy changes and structural fixes for the “system” (or lack thereof) to make it more equitable.

The Heising-Simons Foundation funded the analysis, and Professor Weiland and her co-authors worked quickly, given the dynamic nature of the crisis and the need for feasible policy recommendations. Dr. Weiland, a mother of two—her second was born just months before the pandemic struck—says her team reviewed 300 different studies, ultimately selecting 76 high-quality studies for in-depth review.

“Although the pandemic hit different regions differently,” Dr. Weiland says, “the survey findings were generally consistent.” Among the paper’s notable findings:

  • ECE enrollment plummeted. Early in the crisis, just 10% of 3-to-5-year-old children were continuing in the same program on the same schedule they had before the pandemic. Even as life crept back to normal, learning time dropped dramatically.
  • Educators innovated. Now they’re exhausted. When face-to-face interactions were untenable, teachers went outside and talked to parents from a safe distance or contacted them by phone, text or email.

Some providers gave out diapers, food and learning materials. Nobody thought remote learning was ideal for toddlers, but the workforce showed flexibility and determination. More than a year later, the pandemic has left our child care workforce financially and emotionally scarred, with programs struggling to find and hire qualified teachers. Federal interventions so far have been appreciated, but many experts find them insufficient.

  • Families stepped up. Many of us who weren’t frontline workers had to do our jobs remotely, but we nonetheless made time to help our children learn. For example, 95% of Massachusetts parents reported doing science, language and literacy activities with their children—a level of commitment that was consistent across income groups.
  • Dual-language learners (DLLs) and students of color suffered most. “Covid magnified pre-existing inequities,” Professor Weiland explains. “Everybody lost ground, but especially kids of color.” Remote-only learning was more common for these children and in districts with the highest share of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

A Virginia study found the increase in kindergarteners and first graders classified as at-risk for reading failure was 1.2-2.5 times as high for children who are Black and Hispanic and for children from families with low incomes.

  • What we don’t know could be even worse than what we do. By definition, most research studies include families and teachers who are still attached to their early learning settings. The authors make a chilling point when they write, “Learning setbacks may be more profound and consequential for children whose data we currently lack.”

“Historic Crisis, Historic Opportunity” lives up to the second part of its name by spelling out policy solutions to repair the damage, stabilize the sector and build equity:

  • Prioritizing the need for infant and toddler care
  • Act on the best science of ECE in curriculum choice, structuring of summer programs and supports for teachers
  • Increasing public and private teacher pay to stabilize the workforce, as well as making health care subsidies and other supports available
  • Paying child care providers based on enrollment rather than attendance (at least until early 2022)
  • Investing in data systems and analytic capacity to verify that funding reaches the places where it can be most effective

“In order to thrive,” says Professor Weiland, “young children need high-quality learning opportunities.” While she says that it’s not realistic or even desirable to build a one-size-fits-all ECE system, we shouldn’t be stuck in the mindset that the patchwork of existing programs is all we can hope for.

“This crisis is a potential launch pad for a more coherent system,” she argues. “And this is the time to change how we administer ECE today and imagine it for tomorrow.”


Read More: Three Themes from the University of Oregon’s RAPID-EC Survey Project

  • The pandemic has made it difficult for many families with young children to pay for basic needs, which has had negative effects on caregiver and child wellbeing.
  • Long-standing racial inequality in families with young children has increased over the last year
  • The pandemic has placed extra weight on families with a child with special needs

A Year in the Life of a Pandemic: What We’ve Learned Listening to Family Voices, by Philip Fisher, PhD, Joan Lombardi, PhD, Nat Kendall-Taylor, PhD

Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. He lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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