Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

What if public policy were based on scientific findings?

It’s a question that Dr. Jack Shonkoff has been asking for years. The head of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, Shonkoff has been promoting the “science of early childhood” as a “source of new ideas that could be used to develop more effective policies.”

Earlier this month, the center released a new paper, “From Best Practices to Breakthrough Impacts: A science-based approach to building a more promising future for young children and families”.

The paper calls for investments in research and development “to move beyond the best of what we know now—to apply cutting-edge science and an innovation mindset to the urgent task of creating the better best practices of tomorrow.”

One of the disconnects between science and policy?

“At a time when the discourse around early childhood investments is dominated by debates over preschool for 4-year-olds, the biological sciences cry out for attending to a missing niche in the field—new strategies in the prenatal-to-three period for families facing adversity,” the paper explains.

The executive summary adds: “A highly energized research and development (R&D) dimension is an essential part of any healthy, sustainable enterprise. The absence of a science-based R&D platform in the early childhood field threatens the future of all children, families, and communities whose challenges are not being addressed adequately by existing policies and programs.”

The paper is featured in an article in the Atlantic, which points to places where more research and innovation could occur:

“Consider Early Head Start, a program aimed at helping disadvantaged children ages 0 to 3 across the United States. While Early Head Start has the infrastructure in place to test and scale a variety of programs, the report argues that it has so far provided little clarity on which of its programs work best for which people, and how they might be replicated.

“Shonkoff says the current focus on determining so-called ‘best practices’ by looking at average impact when it comes to interventions for children living in poverty is tantamount to searching for a single treatment for “cancer,” even though cancer comes in many forms and is caused by many factors. Take acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). In 1965, the year the first Head Start center was opened, the survival rate for ALL was below 5 percent. Now, it’s above 90 percent because doctors choose different treatment plans for different patients. They know how to do that because researchers have developed and tested those treatment plans. That’s not happening, Shonkoff said, for early childhood.”

The Atlantic itself is helping to spread innovative ideas on early childhood by running numerous articles on the topic, including this one, which features Ben Mardell, an early childhood professor at Lesley University whom we’ve blogged about before. The Atlantic series is called “Next America: Early Childhood” and features in-depth articles about a range of early childhood topics.

Building on Shonkoff’s work, Harvard’s Graduate School of Education has just announced that a $35.5 million gift from the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation will fund a new early childhood program.

The Zaentz Initiative “will pursue interlocking strategies for impact: conducting research to drive policy and practice, strengthening the field through high-quality professional learning, cultivating new leaders in the field, and bringing credible evidence to bear on public policy affecting young children.”

James Ryan, dean of the education school, says the effort will, “tap into the strength of our faculty in early childhood, including Professor Nonie Lesaux and Associate Professor Stephanie Jones, allowing us to build a strong evidence base for pre-K program improvement, policy, and advocacy. It will also leverage the broader work of the Center on the Developing Child and its Frontiers of Innovation movement, under the direction of Professor Jack Shonkoff. Finally, the gift’s critical support for student financial aid and attracting outstanding faculty will help HGSE build its capacity to make an impact.”

These innovative, science-backed efforts promise to payoff for young children, helping them start strong and grow into successful adults.