Harvard Ed School launches major early childhood education initiative

The school's biggest single donation to date, funded by the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation, will foster research to advance accessible, high-quality pre-K education.

Steven Senne/AP/File
People walk near Memorial Church on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

A new early childhood program that seeks to promote research and teaching in the field of child development is underway at Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), thanks to a $35.5 million gift from the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation.

The donation, HGSE's single biggest donation to date, will put Harvard at the forefront of research into effective, accessible early childhood education, school officials said.

"It's one of the most significant investments in early childhood education," HGSE dean James Ryan told The Boston Globe. "I think it will give us the capacity to tackle some of the most important issues and challenges in early childhood education, which are basically about how you create high quality pre-K for all kids."

For years, studies have emphasized the importance of early childhood education, or ECE, for laying the foundations of lifelong learning and development. Yet about half of the country's 3- to 4-year-olds aren't enrolled in full-day schools, often because of parents' financial restrictions. 

"There's a great deal of really promising evidence about the benefits of high-quality pre-K," Dean Ryan told Harvard Magazine. "But there aren't enough high-quality pre-K programs, and there's not enough clarity on the essential components of a high-quality pre-K program. The initiative will take the evidence about the benefits of pre-K and build capacity in the field to make sure high-quality pre-K is available to all kids."

The donation comes as awareness of the merits of preschool and pre-K is gaining momentum, with several cities attempting to fund more accessible programming. Many advocates, however, feel that philanthropists have given less attention to a pre-K foundation, compared to efforts in funding K-12 programs. 

But that is beginning to change. Several philanthropists, including the Buffet Early Childhood Education Fund, the Kellogg, PNC, Helios, and the Bezos Family foundations are now championing ECE. And the main reason donors haven't paid more attention is simply because they are unaware, billionaire and ECE donor J. B. Pritzker told Inside Philanthropy.

"It is not among the first three things that new philanthropists think of when they think, 'What can I do to make the world a better place?' " Pritzker told the publication. "And it should be.... They haven't seen ECE as an arrow in their quiver. They're focused on third grade reading levels or high school graduation rates or getting kids to college, but we know that early childhood programs work, and pay off."

HGSE hopes the creation of a nation-wide center, with programs including pre-K educators' professional development, a five-year story of diverse 3-year-olds, and graduate fellowships, can change the conversation by creating "a go-to place for people coming together" and "act as a catalyst to spur federal funding for a national program of quality early childhood education," foundation director Elliot Steinberg told The Boston Globe.

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