Skip Navigation
archived information
Stay Up-to-Date:
Skip Navigation

How a REL Southwest research-practice partnership is addressing inequity in early childhood education

kids smiling in a group in classroom

By Katie Dahlke | June 1, 2021

Blog author Katie Dahlke, Ph.D., is a principal researcher with the American Institutes for Research and serves as the research lead for our Southwest Early Childhood Education Research Partnership in Oklahoma. Dr. Dahlke was principal investigator for the recently published REL Southwest study, Participation in State-Funded Prekindergarten in Oklahoma. In this post she describes the contexts and strategies of the partnership’s work addressing inequities in early childhood education. For more information on the partnership, revisit this blog by partnership member Tiffany Neill of the Oklahoma State Department of Education and check out the list of readings and resources following this post.

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds often enter kindergarten with fewer foundational learning skills compared with their more advantaged peers.1 These academic achievement gaps persist as children progress through school. Through the Southwest Early Childhood Education Research Partnership, the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE), the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Southwest, and other early childhood education stakeholders in Oklahoma are working together to help reduce these early achievement gaps.

What are the benefits of quality early childhood education for children from disadvantaged backgrounds?

Research shows us that high-quality early childhood education programs can address some inequities by closing learning gaps early on. High-quality preschool programs produce gains in cognitive skills, early language and literacy development, mathematics skills, and self-regulation.2 Moreover, the benefits of early learning experiences, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, extend beyond early childhood, with positive effects on high school completion, student behavior, and adult outcomes including earnings and health outcomes.3

Where are the inequities in early childhood education?

One way to identify potential inequities is to determine which students participate in or do not participate in high-quality early childhood education experiences. The partnership conducted a study to examine participation in state-funded prekindergarten (preK) in Oklahoma from 2014/15 through 2018/19. While participation in preK was high overall (74 percent of public-school kindergarten students had attended state-funded preK in the prior year), participation varied. A substantially smaller percentage of students in urban and suburban districts participated. In addition, the study identified groups of students that participated less often, including students eligible for free lunch, Black students, and Pacific Islander students. The differences in student participation across geographic areas and student characteristics indicate an opportunity for policies and strategies to address inequities in early learning and care opportunities. This work should start by talking with families in these communities to build understanding of the barriers to participation.

How have children’s early learning experiences changed amid the COVID-19 pandemic?

In Oklahoma, enrollment in public prekindergarten and kindergarten dropped during 2020/21. Children able to participate faced different learning experiences due to the pandemic, such as virtual instruction or modified in-person instruction. Consequently, many teachers could not gauge student learning as easily and adapt instruction accordingly. Learning experiences may have been strained for economically disadvantaged students who may have limited access to technology for virtual learning or more limited adult assistance at home. Therefore, learning gaps between economically disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers may be wider now.

Moreover, many children’s home learning environments were particularly stressful this year as parents navigated new financial and social challenges. COVID-19–related stressors have been associated with increases in stress among parents as well as a decrease in positive parenting.4 During the pandemic, REL Southwest developed resources to help caregivers and educators support children’s learning and health development, including a searchable spreadsheet of free learning resources and an infographic to raise awareness of how to support young children’s hierarchy of needs. 

How is the Southwest Early Childhood Education Research Partnership addressing inequity in early childhood education?

REL Southwest and OSDE are addressing inequity through several strategies:

  1. Increasing awareness of early learning opportunities. Given the disparities in preK participation identified through this partnership, REL Southwest developed an infographic for state and local education agencies that provides strategies to increase awareness and enrollment in prekindergarten.
  2. Identifying disparities in early learning experiences. To help understand children’s early learning experiences in public prekindergarten and kindergarten classrooms and their teachers’ needs to support student learning recovery in 2021/22, OSDE is fielding a survey in spring 2021 with support from REL Southwest. OSDE intends to use this information to create Ready Together Oklahoma supports for educators.
  3. Helping teachers meet students where they are. Given greater disparities in students’ learning experiences this year, academic gaps may be larger in fall 2021. Teachers will have to support students with a wider range of knowledge and skills. With support from REL Southwest, OSDE is launching a new Early Learning Inventory (ELI) for kindergarten and first grade teachers statewide. The ELI, adapted from New Mexico’s Early Childhood Observation Tool, will provide teachers with information about students’ knowledge and skills at the beginning of the year, allowing them to tailor instruction to students’ individual needs.

    “The OSDE is excited to partner with REL Southwest to offer the ELI and corresponding professional development at no cost to school districts next year. This initiative aligns with our Ready Together Oklahoma plan to support educators and schools as they address the academic and social-emotional needs of students brought on by the global pandemic.”

    — Joy Hofmeister, State
    Superintendent of Public Instruction

  4. Addressing bias in formative assessment. Bias in assessment practices, or rater bias, can be introduced both in administering assessments and in using assessment data to make decisions about how to support students’ growth and learning. This bias can contribute to disparities in children’s early learning experiences. REL Southwest is collaborating with OSDE to lead a teacher training academy to discuss rater bias and its possible consequences on a teacher’s understanding and interpretation of students’ social and emotional skills, teachers’ classroom management style or expectations of students, and the ways in which teachers respond to student behavior in a classroom setting.

The Southwest Early Childhood Education Research Partnership recognizes that the task of fully identifying and addressing the inequities in early childhood education is great. Efforts will surely need to extend beyond the focus of this current set of strategies in order to achieve the long-term goal of eliminating early achievement gaps. The current work, however, takes critical steps in furthering the pursuit of equity and this partnership will continue to seek and implement new strategies to this end.


1Henry, Betancur Cortés, & Votruba-Drzal, 2020; Reardon & Portilla, 2016.

2Burchinal, Field, López, Howes, & Pianta, 2012; Dickinson & Porche, 2011; Galindo, 2010; Gormley & Gayer, 2005.

3Barnett, 1995, 2002; Belfield, Nores, Barnett, & Schweinhart, 2006; Campbell et al., 2014; Garces, Thomas, & Currie, 2002; Heckman, 2006; Masse & Barnett, 2002; Reynolds, Temple, White, Ou, & Robertson, 2011; Schweinhart, 2001.

4Brown, Doom, Lechuga-Peña, Watamura, & Koppels, 2020.

For more information on early childhood education and the work of the Southwest Early Childhood Education Research Partnership:


Barnett, W. S. (1995). Long-term effects of early childhood programs on cognitive and school outcomes. The Future of Children, 5(3), 25–50.

Barnett, W. S. (2002). Early childhood education. School Reform Proposals: The Research Evidence, 1–26. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

Belfield, C. R., Nores, M., Barnett, S., & Schweinhart, L. (2006). The High/Scope Perry Preschool program cost-benefit analysis using data from the age-40 followup. Journal of Human Resources, 41(1), 162–190.

Brown, S. M., Doom, J. R., Lechuga-Peña, S., Watamura, S. E., & Koppels, T. (2020). Stress and parenting during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Child Abuse & Neglect, 110, 104699.

Burchinal, M., Field, S., Lopez, M. L., Howes, C., & Pianta, R. (2012). Instruction in Spanish in pre-kindergarten classrooms and child outcomes for English language learners. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 27(2), 188–197.

Campbell, F., Conti, G., Heckman, J. J., Seong Hyeok, M., Pinto, R., Pungello, E., & Yi, P. (2014). Early childhood investments substantially boost adult health. Science, 343(6178), 1478–1485. DOI: 10.1126/science.1248429

Dickinson, D.K. and Porche, M.V. (2011). Relation between language experiences in preschool classrooms and children’s kindergarten and fourth‐grade language and reading abilities. Child Development, 82(3): 870–886.

Galindo, C. (2010). English language learners’ math and reading achievement trajectories in the elementary grades. In E. Garcia & E. Frede (Eds.), Young English language learners—Current research and emerging directions for practice and policy (pp. 42–58). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Garces, E., Thomas, D., & Currie, J. (2002.) Longer-term effects of head start. American Economic Review, 92(4): 999–1012. DOI: 10.1257/00028280260344560

Gormley, W. T., & Gayer, T. (2005). Promoting school readiness in Oklahoma. Journal of Human Resources, 40(3), 533–558.

Heckman, J. J. (2006). Skill formation and the economics of investing in disadvantaged children. Science, 312(5782), 1900–1902.

Henry, D. A., Betancur Cortés, L., & Votruba-Drzal, E. (2020). Black–White achievement gaps differ by family socioeconomic status from early childhood through early adolescence. Journal of Educational Psychology, 112(8), 1471–1489.

Masse, L. N., & Barnett, W. S. (2002). A benefit cost analysis of the Abecedarian early childhood intervention. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University, Graduate School of Education, National Institute for Early Education Research.

Reardon, S. F., & Portilla, X. A. (2016). Recent trends in income, racial, and ethnic school readiness gaps at kindergarten entry. AERA Open, 2(3).

Reynolds, A. J., Temple, J. A., White, B. A. B., Ou, S-R., & Robertson, D. L. (2011). Age 26 cost-benefit analysis of the Child-Parent Center Early Education Program. Child Development, 82(1), 379–404.

Schweinhart, L. J. (2001). Recent evidence on preschool programs. ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.

< Next Post Previous Post >

Author Information

Katie Dahlke's photo

Katie Dahlke, Ph.D.

Principal Researcher | REL Southwest