The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has earned $6.5 million to shape Nebraska early childhood practices and policies, while leading a national network committed to improving children’s outcomes.
The project is part of the multi-institutional Early Learning Network, a $26 million research initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.
Nebraska’s Susan Sheridan will lead the network and Nebraska team, which includes researchers from the university’s Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools, the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and NU’s Public Policy Center.
The scope and complexity of challenges in early childhood require a comprehensive approach, Sheridan said. The network will provide a critical framework for research and policy outreach.
“We have big goals and a broad vision for the network under our leadership as we work to leverage strengths across six research programs,” said Sheridan, director of the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools. “The overarching goal of our research, both in Nebraska and nationally, is to understand what it will take to close the achievement gap and sustain positive outcomes for disadvantaged children.”
Across Nebraska, the university team will conduct three studies on early education policy, classroom practices and children’s transition from preschool through third grade.
By following children over time, the team will identify the nuances of transition – new classrooms, instructional approaches and curricular expectations – and their impact on educational progress.
“This is a one-of-a-kind study, and it’s an amazing opportunity for the state of Nebraska,” said Iheoma Iruka, co-principal investigator and director of research and evaluation at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute. “We have an opportunity to add a much more refined and precise understanding about children’s experiences and transitions from preschool through third grade, which will provide important considerations for future interventions, policy and research.”
The university’s research also emphasizes rural education. With participation from 10 rural and two urban school districts, the team hopes to better understand how Nebraska’s diverse community contexts shape children’s development and learning.
That context is important, especially in determining opportunities for implementing best practices, said Mark DeKraai, senior research director at the university’s Public Policy Center, who is leading the team’s policy study.
DeKraai aims to identify the school, state and federal policies affecting Nebraska early childhood practices and why communities choose certain policies over others. If researchers can better understand what works across these systems, he said, school districts can be better informed to help children.
“By combining our understanding of early education policies, classroom factors and learning outcomes, we can provide scientific evidence for future decisions and improve the lives of the next generation of students,” DeKraai said.
The university’s team will also guide early childhood efforts on a national scale. They will coordinate research and outreach efforts among teams from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; the University of California, Irvine; The Ohio State University; the University of Virginia; and MDRC, a policy research organization.
Together, network teams will guide early childhood assessment and evaluation, collaborate on additional research and enhance communication strategies for policy outreach.
“Many of our desired outcomes, especially our desire to enhance the quality of educational experiences for children at risk, are contingent upon the degree that we can shape policy,” Sheridan said. “As a result of this set of studies, we have a tremendous opportunity to not only inform, but shape policy around early childhood education.”
In addition to Sheridan, Iruka and DeKraai, the university’s team includes Lisa Knoche, research associate professor at the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools; James Bovaird, director of CYFS’ Nebraska Academy for Methodology, Analytics and Psychometrics; and Greg Welch, CYFS research associate professor.