ook at toddlers; constant explorers and curious minds, and you can easily imagine the opportunities their futures may hold. Although they may not be able to reach the water fountain, and think dirt is fun to play with and eat, you trust with time and guidance they will grow to their unlimited potential. But what if the quality of child care, even as young as infants, limits their potential in life?
"Long-term research on early childcare shows that young children who experience high- quality early care do better in school, graduate from high school and college at higher rates, earn more as adults and establish more stable families," reported Diane Horm, George Kaiser Family Foundation Endowed Chair of Early Childhood Education. "That is why the ECEI focuses its research on this narrow, but critical window of time."
The ECEI and the ECE bachelor's-completion program at OU-Tulsa were established in 2006 with two objectives. The first is to focus on early childhood workforce development because caregivers with more professional preparation are shown to provide higher-quality early care and education for very young children. The second is to build a research institute that conducts applied research to inform best practices in professional preparation and in the delivery of direct services to young children and their families.
The ECEI works as local evaluators with Educare and Oklahoma's State Pilot Program. Additionally, the ECEI created the IT3 Center, an initiative designated as a University Strategic Organization in 2011, to understand and inform the distinct development and learning of infants, toddlers, twos and threes within early care and education settings through research, dissemination and application.
"We do much more than simply hand over the data," said Horm. "We want the program, the teachers and, ultimately, the child to be successful. That is why we work collaboratively with the early childhood professional to use data to understand their young students and program better."
The ECEI's goal is to become the nation's foremost center for research on the development of infants to three year olds. This area is the frontier of early childhood education, yet lacks robust research.
"Every kid deserves the thrill of knowing the answer," said Horm. "Now that we know the quality of early care and education is crucial to child development, we want to look deeper into the specific aspects of programs that make a difference; how to best prepare people to become infant and toddler caregivers; and best practices for teachers to augment group settings for infants and toddlers.
Family income shouldn't be a predictor of school success. But, sadly, study after study documents a relationship between family income and child achievement with children from low-income families not doing as well in school than their more advantaged peers.
One of the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa Early Childhood Education Institute's key areas of research is the achievement gap, or the difference in academic performance between children from low-income families and their middle-class peers. The center has found that high-quality early childhood education is key to closing, and even preventing, that gap.
In the ECEI's research with Educare, a comprehensive program serving young children living in poverty, it was found that children who enter the program as infants and toddlers started kindergarten performing at national averages. Kids who joined the program at three already show evidence of the achievement gap.
Across the national network of Educare sites, the research shows that children who enter a high-quality program as infants and toddlers consistently score near the national average for children of all income levels. This same impact was not evident in children who started the progam later. Said another way-starting early in a high-quality early care and education program can prevent the achievement gap from forming.