Researchers across the country will study policies and practices of early childhood education that help close the achievement gap in a $6.5 million project led by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The Early Learning Network, part of a $26 million U.S. Department of Education initiative, will study how education policies differ in rural and urban areas for children in pre-kindergarten through third grade to learn how educators can close the achievement gap for at-risk students.
Susan Sheridan, who will lead UNL’s efforts as well as the network at large, said the research will combine efforts of the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools, as well as NU's Buffett Early Childhood Institute and Public Policy Center.
“We’re learning a lot about what works and what really matters and how we can prepare students as they move in to more formal schooling,” Sheridan said. “Our research has, for many years, focused on understanding and creating conditions to optimize young children’s learning, particularly at-risk children.”
The project will track children over time to study how changes in the educational environment -- including the move to new classrooms and different instructional approaches among teachers -- impact the transition through the early elementary years.
Sheridan said UNL will examine how to better identify and control those factors to help “level the playing field” for all students, including those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
UNL will focus on education in rural areas, Sheridan said, with 10 rural and two urban school districts slated to participate in the project.
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Iheoma Iruka, director of research and evaluation at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, said the unique study should give researchers insight into how education shapes development and understanding.
“We have an opportunity to add a much more refined and precise understanding about children’s experiences and transitions from preschool through third grade,” Iruka said, “which will provide important considerations for future interventions, policy and research.”
Mark DeKraai, senior research director at NU’s Public Policy Center, said the project will also evaluate how school districts and communities choose certain education policies over others.
At the end of the study, the network will be able to provide scientific evidence to help with policy decisions across the country, DeKraai said.
Other universities across the Early Learning Network will coordinate with UNL researchers headquartered at the Whittier Research Center, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; the University of California, Irvine; Ohio State University; the University of Virginia; and MDRC, a policy research center.
Research should begin later this year, Sheridan said, as UNL has received letters of commitment from school districts in Omaha, Kearney, North Platte, O'Neill and Gordon-Rushville.
More districts will join the project later, she added.