Pre-to-3: New center to track state policies on infants and toddlers

By the end of this year, the Prenatal-to-Three Policy Impact Center at UT-Austin plans to publish a list of policies found to support young children’s health and well-being.

By Linda Jacobson

(Originally published August 9, 2019, by Education Dive

This latest Pre-to-3 column focuses on the announcement of a new initiative to show what states are doing to support families with infants and toddlers. Past installments of Pre-to-3 can be found here.

A new early childhood research-to-policy initiative, based at the University of Texas at Austin, will focus on informing state-level decisions that affect families with infants and toddlers.

And by fall 2020, the Prenatal-to-Three Policy Impact Center will produce a “roadmap” that identifies the extent to which states have adopted policies that focus on young children’s health and well-being, similar to the way the National Institute for Early Education Research ranks state-funded pre-K programs.

For K-12 educators, the center will provide insight on how policies in their states support family stability and young children’s access to the opportunities shown to support learning and development in the years before they enter school.

“Our ultimate goal is that kids show up to school ready to learn,” said Cynthia Osborne, an associate dean in the university’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and the leader of the new center, which was announced this week at the National Conference of State Legislature’s summit in Nashville.

By the end of this year, the center will announce the list of key policies that research has shown support positive outcomes. Such policies might focus on home visiting programs, Medicaid expansion, child care quality rating systems or paid family leave.

“We have a lot of our kids going to pre-K, but with our little littles, they are all over the place,” said Osborne, who also directs of the university’s Child and Family Research Partnership. “It’s not one simple solution. It’s systemic care that we really have to build for them.”

With a three-year, $3.5 million grant from the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation, the center will seek to make research and sometimes confusing program evaluations more accessible to those designing and implementing policies focusing on children in their earliest years.

The center is doing this in two ways, Osborne explained. First, a policy team is reviewing the evidence on policies that impact families with young children, and second, a state team is forming relationships with state-level officials and staff members working in these areas.

“We want to really understand what it is they are doing and what it is they want to do,” Osborne said.

A broad-based group of researchers, policymakers and other early-learning experts will serve on the center’s National Advisory Council.

“We know from science that the earliest years of life effects long-term health, learning and behavior. So, what happens from the prenatal period through the early years will have an impact on how well-equipped children are to be successful in school,” said Joan Lombardi, a member of the advisory council and a former deputy assistant secretary for early-childhood development during the Obama administration.

“This new initiative will help us better understand what are the effective policies that we should be promoting at the state and local level to make a serious difference in the lives of young children and families. Focusing on the earliest years of life is a core education strategy, which is long overdue.”

A focus on pregnancy to age 3

At the federal level, Osborne sees multiple opportunities for states to examine their existing policies affecting pregnant women, infants and toddlers, and to determine whether legislative or regulatory changes are needed. For example, most states received funding through the Preschool Development Grant program to conduct a needs assessment focusing on children from birth to age 5. And as part of their funding through the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, states are also required to conduct a needs assessment by October 2020.

While state early-childhood policy has predominantly focused on preschoolers and school readiness over the past two decades, important developmental milestones occur in the first three years. And growing knowledge about high-quality child care, stable and nurturing relationshipswith families and caregivers, and the negative outcomes linked to adverse childhood experiences has spurred efforts to improve programs and services for younger children as well.

“There has been a stream of important studies over the past decade on what helps children thrive, and yet too often that research goes into a black hole or is rarely picked up by policymakers and practitioners who could have a huge impact on children’s lives,” said Lisa Guernsey, the director of Teaching, Learning and Tech at New America and a senior advisor at the think tank on early and elementary education.

“Research should be pointing the way to good policy, helping families gain more access to quality programs for prenatal health, family leave, home visiting, parent success and early learning,” she said.

Finding a ‘common language’

Many research partnerships focus on connecting practitioners to the most up-to-date knowledge in their particular field. But this effort will emphasize policy, where the evidence that exists is much different. State policies are not implemented as part of an experimental design in which the policy applied to some people but not others, Osborne said.

And “sometimes there are going to be policies that have strong theories of change, but we haven’t been doing it long enough,” she added.

But lessons from research-to-practice partnerships can still apply, she said. As with specific programs and interventions, a policy implemented and found to be successful in one state might not work in another. For example, some states don’t have an income tax, so implementing their own version of an earned income tax credit doesn’t make sense.

In a new article appearing in the American Educational Research Journal, University of California San Diego researchers Kathryn Joyce and Nancy Cartwright note that when it comes to research on programs, it’s important to consider whether similar results can transfer to a different context.

They call on researchers to focus not just on whether a particular intervention is effective, but to “help local decision makers identify and find the facts they need to predict if an intervention is likely to work in their setting, what it would take to get it to do so, and whom it might help and whom it might harm.”

Their advice could also apply in the policy realm.

Osborne notes that when working with policymakers, it’s also important to find a common language around terms such as “significant” and “impact” and to have a “shared respect and understanding” for the role that each person plays.

While reports that rank states are not always welcomed among policymakers, she said the center will work closely with state leaders to make the PN-3 State Policy Roadmap a useful tool.

“We really want to work with states for it to be a reflection of where they are headed,” she said.