Laying the foundation for lifetime learning

Science Magazine Cover 19August2011
Posted August 19, 2011

Originally published in Science Magazine as an introduction to a special issue, "Investing Early in Education."

Index to Education 2011

Although you may have forgotten your earliest experiences before school, they continue to affect many aspects of your life, perhaps your comfort with math or even the size of your paycheck. Early childhood education research is focused on understanding these impacts, both near- and long-term. The articles in this section detail what is known about these processes and programs, and what remains to be explored.

In addition to acquiring cognitive skills, the ability to pay attention, follow directions, and function productively in groups helps a child get the most out of school. Diamond and Lee (p. 959) review how such skills can be taught in preschool. Dickinson (p. 964) describes how a teacher's ability to support language and conceptual knowledge can foster early language skills, providing a foundation for later literacy. Clements and Sarama (p. 968) discuss effective ways to establish early grounding in math. Without consensus on how, and when, to teach science, cognitive psychologists and education researchers differ regarding what aspects of the research are most important. Klahr et al. (p. 971) highlight the contributions of cognitive psychology to this field.

The value of investment in early education depends on the quality of interventions and the conditions under which they are administered. Barnett (p. 975) reviews longitudinal studies and meta-analyses that demonstrate how educational interventions can produce persistent effects on cognitive, social, and schooling outcomes. In early childhood education, as in other domains, scientific research seeks to inform public policy. Gormley (p. 978) discusses situations and practices that can help or hinder the influence of research on policy. In an Education Forum, Shonkoff (p. 982) argues that the impacts of even the best preschool curricula are likely to be limited by toxic social stress on the developing brain. He suggests research and programs aimed at improving the ability of caregivers and educators to help the most vulnerable children take advantage of early enrichment opportunities.

In a series of News stories, Mervis looks at three longitudinal studies fueling the economic argument that high-quality early intervention pays off handsomely for society as well as individuals (p. 952). He also reviews the 46-year-old Head Start program, which provides education and other services to 1 million low-income U.S. children and their families (p. 956), and interviews Joan Lombardi (p. 957), who leads the Obama Administration's efforts to coordinate health and education programs for young children in the United States. Science Careers profiles neuroscientists working with children to explore the bases of dyslexia and dyscalculia, characterized by difficulties in reading and math.

Early childhood education remains peppered with both opportunities and debate. Continued progress will require new research that bridges traditional disciplines of neuroscience, psychology, sociology, economics, public policy, health, and education. Although many best practices remain to be elaborated, research demonstrates that these years lay a powerful foundation for subsequent learning, and that they should be taken at least as seriously as schooling in later years.