Informing the early childhood field as the Educare Learning Network’s National Evaluation Partner
Researchers at UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) are supporting the Educare Learning Network as part of the Institute’s mission to transform children's lives through innovation in research, practice, and policy. The Network—a coast-to-coast consortium of state-of-the-art, full-day, year-round schools funded mostly by existing public dollars—serves children from birth to 5 years who live in marginalized communities and have had fewer opportunities for supportive educational experiences. Each Educare school provides children and families with instructional and family supports that develop early skills and nurture strong parent-child relationships to create the foundation for successful learning.
As the Network’s National Evaluation Partner (NEP), FPG focuses on three areas: leadership and coordination within the network; protocol development, data collection, and data management; and dissemination of results from the Educare National Evaluation inside and outside the network. FPG works alongside Start Early and the Buffett Early Childhood Fund as the other national partners for the Educare network, collaborations that involve working closely and regularly. The FPG team is led by FPG Senior Research Scientist Donna Bryant, PhD, Social Research Specialist Gisele Crawford, MAA, Faculty Fellow Iheoma U. Iruka, PhD, Advanced Research Scientist and statistician Laura Kuhn, PhD, Advanced Research Scientist Sandra Soliday Hong, PhD, and Senior Research Scientist and Principal Investigator Noreen Yazejian, PhD.
FPG researchers, programmers, and statisticians provide day-to-day technical assistance for local evaluation partners (LEPs) working with each Educare school to collect and use data. These members of FPG’s Data Management and Analysis Core (DMAC) not only fulfill requests from the research team here but also from all of the local evaluators, most of whom are part of universities and research organizations around the country, while some work at the same agency that runs the Educare school. “Keil Jones, our lead programmer, communicates with them almost every day, trouble-shooting, providing customized datasets, among other responsibilities,” says Crawford. “This is a highly visible way that FPG is providing service to researchers at other leading research institutions and community-based organizations. I think that direct service from DMAC to local evaluators is a big reason why FPG is highly valued by the rest of the Educare network.”
As the Educare Learning Network continues to grow and change, its leaders expect that the role of FPG as the National Evaluation Partner will also evolve. The field of early childhood education is experiencing many changes, particularly due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges it has caused for children and families living in poverty and the child care staff who support them.
As the National Evaluation Partner, FPG co-leads a workgroup on research and evaluation alongside the executive director of one of the Educare schools. The workgroup consists of research and practice leaders across the Network and serves as part of the Network’s governance structure. This past year, they achieved a major accomplishment by drafting a research agenda for the Network, which aligns with the Network’s strategic plan and focuses on racial equity. The work group also established a committee to identify new scales to add to parent and staff surveys to gather information about beliefs about racial socialization and experiences of discrimination. This was in addition to new questions and scales that had been added in the previous year to gather information about family and staff hardships, adaptations, and resilience in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Network findings have been disseminated in the past year through data memos, data dialogues, and research sessions at the annual Educare Network meeting. The data dialogues shared Research-to-Practice Briefs on Effects of COVID on Staff Well-being (by Bryant and colleagues) and Effects of COVID on Child Well-being (by Soliday Hong and colleagues).
Iruka and colleagues also contributed to meeting sessions in 2022 that highlighted research activities within the network beyond the National Evaluation while Yazejian and Bryant summarized the Educare follow-up studies and the Educare randomized study.
Educare Schools Support Children and Families
Research done by Yazejian and colleagues has shown the benefits of Educare for children’s language development, social-emotional skills, and parent-child relationships. In the past year, the team examined the pandemic’s effects on children, families, and teaching and found evidence that parents reported less worry about food and housing, and less worry in general, than parents in other studies, despite hardships related to the pandemic. The FPG team also documented that teaching infants, toddlers, and preschoolers online during the pandemic was extremely challenging, and that staff who taught online/hybrid were less positive about how they adapted to the pandemic as well as less satisfied with their work environments than staff who taught in person.
Informing the Early Childhood Field
Countless presentations at local, state, and national conferences and meetings have shared information about Educare and its research findings. The Educare Network released a policy agenda last year, and will release a research agenda in the coming year, with both of these agendas informed by—and serving to inform—research and evaluation in the field. Since 2013, Educare Learning Network members, including local evaluators, national evaluators at FPG, and other Network partners, have published 30 journal articles and three book chapters using the cross-site dataset. To date, nine dissertations have been completed using the Educare National Evaluation data. And, currently, Educare writing teams have several additional journal articles under review.
Educare is a research-practice-policy collaboration; its research has been included in a variety of compilations, reports, and syntheses. This information is then used by the Network as the foundation to advocate for more resources, supports, and system change at multiple levels. Many FPG leaders of this effort are involved in a variety of national, state, and local task forces, committees, and boards that influence practice and policy at macro and micro-levels.
As the NEP, FPG staff members are privileged and positioned to collaborate and partner with programs, leaders, educators, staff, and funders to provide timely information to support high-quality practices. This work goes beyond impacting practice and policy to having an impact on how research is conducted in early childhood. FPG staff work in partnership with programs and other researchers through a generative network not dependent on a funding cycle or one funder.
When Head Start Program Performance Standards were updated in 2016, the standards included elements related to data use that were informed by Educare policies and practices. With the release last year of the Policy Agenda and the upcoming release of the Research Agenda, Educare is continuing to contribute to conversations about how best to support children’s learning and development, families’ well-being, and the maintenance of a diverse and qualified early childhood workforce.
Several Educare schools have served as Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships in their communities, bringing components of Educare to child care providers and family child care homes in local communities. Local evaluators have been involved in some of these efforts to document learnings.
The Educare Learning Network Research Agenda will provide a road map for research that acknowledges systemic inequities in early childhood and education systems and services. Educare is well situated to ask and answer questions about experiences of racial discrimination, racial socialization practices and beliefs, strengths-based approaches to understanding and serving children and families, and supporting staff from marginalized groups and communities as they serve children and families toward building a diverse and qualified workforce within Educare and beyond.
“We believe that our research will also continue to grow and be more impactful because we are committed to using our research to improve the health, education, economy, and overall well being of children, families, and early education professionals, and society writ large,” says Iruka. “The Network is a great opportunity to work with diverse researchers, partners, and early education providers across the country. Research is part of the three-legged stool with practice and policy that must work in concert for the improvement of children’s and families’ lives, especially those who have been systematically denied opportunities.”