Institute of Government & Public Affairs

Early Investments

Building Evidence Regarding Public Investments in Early Care and Education


Across the country, states and cities are investing in early child care and preschool education. These investments stand on evidence that early intervention can positively affect life trajectories. For example, classic studies demonstrate a return to quality care and education in terms of decreased teenage pregnancy, less criminal activity and increased school completion. Yet, recent evidence questions whether these returns are always realized. Rapid expansion of preschool and child care “slots” for children requires concomitant expansion in the workforce of teachers and educators. These front-line professionals in turn need initial education and training as well as ongoing professional development and coaching in order to provide experiences that are both conducive to learning and that nurture their own and attending children’s physical, social and emotional well-being.

Building this capacity is further complicated by the multifaceted marketplace of early child care and education. Unlike during elementary school, when nearly all children enroll in public schools, less than half of young children attend “organized child care facilities,” such as centers and schools, and, relatively few of these facilities fall under the direct control of the education system. Early care also takes place in homes, often by grandparents or other relatives but also by non-relatives in licensed and license-exempt family child care. This diverse landscape complicates early care and education practice and policy, juxtaposing diverse conceptions of what young children need and what levels of professionalization and pay the workforce requires.


Current Projects

Our current projects are organized to encompass several inter-related aspects of early care and education.


Classroom Quality

How well do existing quality measures work?

How can we design better measures?


ECE Workforce

What is the landscape of ECE leaders, teachers and providers, in Illinois and nationally?

What supports exist (and are needed) for the workforce (especially to support high quality practice)?


ECE Market

How do supply and demand align – and what are costs – across the state?

Which programs and providers use what funding streams?

Which families use what kinds of ECE?


Collaborative Projects

Social Emotional Teaching and Learning (SETL) Lab

McCormick Workforce Initiative

Math at Home

Family Resiliency Center


“Making smart, strategic investments in early childhood can help children thrive for years to come. We are conducting rigorous academic research to better inform—and therefore strengthen—policies for children in care and education settings.”

Affiliated Experts

Rachel Gordon chairs IGPA’s Working Group on Education and Learning. Her research broadly aims to measure and model the contexts of children and families’ lives, often using longitudinal data sets. She has examined numerous contextual and social factors that affect children and families. Some of her work examines the use of child care and preschool quality measures for high-stakes policy purposes, the health outcomes of child care and maternal employment, and the implications of teenagers’ looks for their social and academic achievement. Other work in this area has examined the association between community context and child well-being, the relationships between youth gang participation and delinquency, the causes and consequences of grandmother co-residential support for young mothers, and the evaluation of an innovative job program for young couples.

Professor Gordon has received extensive funding from numerous sources and is currently Principal Investigator (PI) on three external grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Gordon's recent research has examined two widely used measures of quality -- the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale-Revised (ECERS-R) and Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) -- including their structural validity (dimensions of each scale), response process validity (order, fit and separation of items along underlying dimensions), and predictive validity specific to cutoffs defined in policy system (Quality Rating and Information Systems; Head Start Recompetition). She and her collaborators studied these aspects of validity across over a dozen datasets, using meta-analyses to systematically accumulate results. Their latest efforts in this vein are harmonizing measures of behavioral health in two large nationally representative datasets. Another stream of research contributes to the growing body of research on physical attractiveness as a source of social stratification with wide implications for health, akin to more frequently studied factors like race and gender. Based on the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, the project created and analyzed the largest-ever public repository of physical attractiveness ratings for a cohort from birth into young adulthood. New work in this line is comparing interviewer- and self-ratings of skin tone to direct assessments made with handheld devices and examining how each associates with personal identities and social inequalities.