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The Leading Edge of Early Childhood Education: Linking Science to Policy for a New Generation

reviewed by Christopher P. Brown — March 28, 2017

coverTitle: The Leading Edge of Early Childhood Education: Linking Science to Policy for a New Generation
Author(s): Nonie K. Lesaux & Stephanie M. Jones (Eds.)
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1612509177, Pages: 250, Year: 2016
Search for book at Amazon.com

The Leading Edge of Early Childhood Education: Linking Science to Policy for a New Generation, edited by Nonie K. Lesaux and Stephanie M. Jones, emerged from the proceedings of a conference convened at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Leading Edge of Early Childhood Education Initiative" was the title of the gathering. As the conference and title of this book suggest, all of the editors and authors appear to be developmental psychologists. They seek to forward a research-based vision of early childhood education (ECE) that they see as being capable of equalizing the opportunities available for all children. These scholars claim that achieving this vision will narrow the achievement gap. In turn, this will improve children's academic achievement, economic achievement, and make investing in these programs a wise policy choice.

The text is divided into seven chapters that address this vision by exploring a range of issues affecting ECE. The first chapter, written by Deborah A. Phillips, employs developmental research to make the case for policies that will provide children who experience economic instability or social exclusion (both of these factors have been found to have a negative impact on their executive functions and school performance) with a high-quality pre-kindergarten education. Furthermore, she highlights the importance of improving and supporting early childhood educators who also often experience economic insecurity and poor working environments. While the author mentions teacher education towards the end of the chapter, her suggestions merely advocate for instruction regarding learner-centered practices. Of all the chapters in the book, she makes the clearest connections to the idea of making changes in policy by highlighting how current federal policies might be used to attain the multiple goals she puts forward.

In the second chapter, Dana Charles McCoy refers to recent studies in neuroscience and epigenetics to examine how early adverse childhood experiences, be it from the challenges that living in poverty can create or having single or repeated traumatic experiences, affect children’s executive functions and self-regulation. She provides a clear explanation of what the construct of executive functions entails and how adverse experiences can affect these functions in relation to children’s development and learning. The author also addresses the issue of fade out in this chapter. This is the tendency for the academic, social, or emotional gains children make in ECE to diminish as they progress through elementary school. The author contends that elementary school programs need to do a better job of supporting children’s social and emotional development. Similar to Phillips, McCoy also makes the case for improving the care and support of early childhood educators.

In Chapter Three, Amy Pace, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff employ a range of research studies that tie the quality of children’s early language experiences to their performances in schools and society. They do this to make the case for enriching the language of environments for children in the home and in ECE programs. The authors offer six principles of language development based on edible science; this is science that is accessible, digestible, and usable. For example, edible science’s principle five states that children need to hear diverse examples of words and language structures. To do this, Pace, Hirsh-Pasek, and Michnick Golinkoff suggest that early childhood educators and family members must engage in a variety of activities. These include providing children with content-specific vocabulary, defining new words during reading or talking, and introducing sophisticated language with concrete or tangible learning experiences. While they offer few insights into how these principles could be supported by policy, they contend that the debates surrounding ECE should move their focus from research or discovery to implementation and delivery.

In Chapter Four, Gigi Luk and Joanna A. Christodoulou unpack the complexities in assessing, monitoring, and instructing bilingual children. They address misconceptions around these issues so that members of the ECE community not only recognize the complexity and sophistication that bilingual learners possess, but also ensure that if bilingual children are experiencing academic distress or difficulty that early childhood educators can help. Similar to their colleagues’ arguments throughout the text, Luk and Christodoulou contend that supporting bilingual learners requires high-quality teaching staff members. This necessitates improved teacher training, an effective classroom environment, family involvement, and sensitive pedagogy.

In Chapter Five, Lauren Rubenzahl, Kristelle Lavallee, and Michael Rich examine using technology and media in ECE settings. Their primary argument is that early childhood educators and families need to make decisions about technology or media based on evidence rather than personal experience. To support early educators in this process, they offer three principles for using technology and media in pre-kindergarten like choosing your goals then your medium. The authors follow this by examining the challenges inherent in implementing principles like the digital divide. Rubenzahl, Lavallee, and Rich argue that if early educators or families are going to use technology with children, they need to use, watch, read, and interact with it to make sure it is worthwhile. This means that rather than employ media that simply entertains children, adults should select technology that nurtures children’s learning and development.

In Chapter Six, Beth Rous and Rena Hallam discuss how to screen for and support children at risk of developmental delay or disability. In this chapter, they outline the key issues surrounding their topic. For example, the authors highlight the three key features of successful inclusion. This involves explaining what screening means, discussing children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds being incorrectly identified or overlooked in the screening process, and providing insights into what it would take for ECE caregivers to screen, instruct, and monitor the effectiveness of interventions. Rather than conclude with suggestions for policy reform, Rous and Hallam make the case for better collaboration, improved transition, and more continuity across disciplines that address these issues.

In Chapter Seven, Teresa Eckrich Sommer, Terri J. Sabol, P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn lay out an argument for education programs for children and their families across two generations. They clearly recognize how issues like implementation, limited funding, staff training, and the daily challenges that low-income families face affects these programs. However, the authors also believe that empirical research has shown that programs offering either parental training or educational training have a significant impact on the lives of children and their families. Eckrich Sommer, Sabol, Chase-Lansdale, and Brooks-Gunn employ a recent case study of a project titled the Community Action Project Tulsa County to further their argument. In the end, they believe it would be smart to fund low-cost pilot programs. From this, stakeholders can improve their understanding of the impact of these programs on children and their families. It will also help them understand the feasibility of implementing these types of programs across a range of communities.

Editors Lesaux and Jones write the conclusion with their colleague Julie Russ Harris. It reiterates and condenses the main points of each chapter into five impactful leverage points (e.g., ensuring children receive high-quality early learning experiences throughout their early learning years). They contend that ECE stakeholders and policy makers must consider several issues as they design, implement, and scale up the next generation of early learning practices and policies.

Jacqueline Jones, President and CEO of the Foundation for Child Development, writes the book’s afterword. She makes the case that ECE programs will only continue to receive funding if they produce results. The author views this text as timely while offering important insights into the challenges of supporting current ECE programs and bringing others to scale. Jones also provides a series of questions ECE stakeholders should ask themselves as they work with, for, or on behalf of children and their families to ensure the field continues to improve as it moves forward.

As a researcher, teacher educator, and advocate for early childhood care and education (ECCE), I applaud the editors and researchers for putting forward a wealth of ideas and resources for those who are interested in expanding the current systems of early childhood education that exist across the United States. However, I think it is important to point out that there are a few shortcomings within their arguments.

First, I am concerned with how the text makes the field of ECCE dependent on finding risk in children and their families. I say this not to ignore the structural, political, and economic forces that negatively discriminate against an increasingly large percentage of children and families in the United States on a daily basis. Rather, without finding this type of risk, at worst the need for early education is moot. At best ECCE is only needed until such risk is eliminated. This type of argument makes it nearly impossible to frame the advocacy for ECCE programs from a standpoint that celebrates the strengths, knowledge, and skills children or their families bring to these programs (e.g., Pérez & Saavedra, in press).

Second, while all of the book’s authors appear committed to the next generation of early learning practices that will support children, their families, and early childhood teachers, the voices of early childhood teacher educators and early childhood policy researchers are distinctly absent. Including these voices would have strengthened the main premise of this text. It also may have addressed issues like why early childhood educators struggle to implement learning-centered practices within their classrooms (e.g., Brown, Weber, & Yoon, 2015) or provide alternative framings of ECCE programs that go beyond the neoliberal framing of high-quality learner-centered ECCE as strictly an economic investment (e.g., Moss, 2015). For example, the investment argument has been in place for nearly three decades (e.g., Schweinhart, Weikart, & Larner, 1986) and has yet to systemize ECCE across the United States.

Finally, I recognize that no book can resolve all of these tensions, but I think it is important for readers to recognize that the field of early childhood education represents many viewpoints not present in this text. This includes the voices of the children and the families these programs serve (e.g., Doucet, 2011). As a result, I believe The Leading Edge of Early Childhood Education makes an important contribution to the discussion of how the field of ECCE might move forward in the current educational and political environment. However, it is only one voice and should be recognized as such.


Brown, C. P., Weber, N. B., & Yoon, Y. (2015). The practical difficulties for early educators who tried to address children’s realities in their high-stakes teaching context. Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 36(1), 3–23.

Doucet, F. (2011). (Re)constructing home and school: Immigrant parents, agency, and the (un)desirability of bridging multiple worlds. Teachers College Record, 113(12), 2705–2738.

Moss, P. (2015). There are alternatives! Contestation and hope in early childhood education. Global Studies of Childhood, 5(3), 226–238.

Pérez, M. S., & Saavedra, C. M. (in press). A call for onto-epistemological diversity in early childhood education and care: Centering global south conceptualizations of childhoods. Review of Research in Education, 41.

Schweinhart, L. J., Weikart, D. P., & Larner, M. B. (1986). Consequences of three preschool curriculum models through age 15. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 1(1) 15–45.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 28, 2017
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21892, Date Accessed: 4/27/2017 8:21:30 PM

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About the Author
  • Christopher Brown
    University of Texas at Austin
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTOPHER P. BROWN is a Professor of Curriculum and Instruction in Early Childhood Education and a Fellow in the Priscilla Pond Flawn Regents Professorship in Early Childhood Education. His research centers on early childhood education stakeholders across a range of political and educational contexts respond to policymakers' high-stakes standards-based accountability reforms. He has looked at this issue across a range of political and educational contexts using multiple theoretical and practitioner-based perspectives that span the fields of early childhood education, curriculum and instruction, teacher education, and policy analysis. His recent publications focus on two issues: 1) Understanding how practicing and pre-service early childhood educators in high-stakes public teaching contexts can engage in practices that support the cultural, individual, and developmental learning needs of children; 2) Examining the development of preservice teachers as they employ iPads in their teacher training program. Brown, C. P. & Englehardt, J. (2016). Conceptions of and early childhood educators' experiences in early childhood professional development programs: A qualitative metasynthesis. Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 37(3), 216–244. Brown, C. P. & Weber, N. (2016). Struggling to overcome the state's prescription for practice: A study of a sample of early educators' professional development and action-research projects in a high-stakes teaching context. Journal of Teacher Education, 67(3), 183–202. Brown, C. P., Englehardt, J. & Mathers, H. (2016). Examining preservice teachers' conceptual and practical understandings of adopting iPads into their teaching of young children. Teaching and Teacher Education, 60, 179–190.
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