ECD Measure and USAID recently brought together nearly 50 early childhood stakeholders in Washington, DC at the 2023 Comparative International Education Society (CIES) Conference for a Together for Early Childhood Evidence (T4ECE) meeting to discuss how countries, USAID, and T4ECE partners are making progress in building data informed early childhood systems.

Dr. Joan Lombardi, a longstanding champion for young children, families and communities and the Director of the Early Opportunities Initiative, facilitated a roundtable discussion at the meeting. We asked Dr. Lombardi to reflect on issues in the early childhood measurement and evidence field after the event.

When I first entered the field of early childhood, many years ago, we were very focused on observing children. We would observe them while playing, while they were doing different activities, and while they were eating, and resting. We took notes on index cards.  We kept journals or logs or kept some type of records on what we were learning about the young children in our care: progress, concerns, next steps.  This was often helpful when sharing with parents and/or identifying children who may have developmental issues and need special support. It was also critical for helping to adjust service delivery: how we set up the environment and what was of particular interest to each child, what needed more attention, and what new could be introduced.  I vaguely recall some “simple assessment” at the beginning and end of the year, but I don’t recall how the results were  used.

I often think back on the simplicity of those days, yet realize our knowledge and methods are much more sophisticated now and the demands on early childhood are much more complex. We now know how important measurement can be. Yet as the emphasis on measurement and evidence-based practice has grown, challenges and questions have emerged. As we move forward to assure that all children meet their developmental potential and caregivers are supported, I offer three brief recommendations to consider when approaching measurement.

1. Reflect on what, why and how of measurement.

Too much measurement is happening because someone was told it was important to do, without enough thinking about goals, purpose, appropriateness of the instrument, and how the data will be used.  It may sound simple, but we have to start with what we are measuring:  for example: are we looking at individual child development or a population of children in a community; behavior change of caregivers; teacher child interactions or other quality aspects of the classroom or home visit?  In each case we also must be clear about the purpose. For example: are we screening to identify developmental risks and assets; conducting formative assessment for continuous improvement; launching an evaluation to determine impact, etc.  We have to continuously ask if the instruments and methods to be used have been designed for this particular purpose, if they are valid and appropriate for this population, and how the data will be used.

Measuring any aspect of child development merits particular attention to all these issues. Given that development varies so much in the early years, we need to be sure to avoid high stakes decisions, particularly when they are based on a single point in time, or without understanding program implementation issues, resources available, or the context of the family.

 2. Consider cultural context and build local and national capacity.

Too often the assessment of children, programs, and policies sits outside of the cultural context and conditions represented in a community.  While changing, for far too long research and evaluation, as well as measurement tools, have been dependent on far away institutions, particularly those in the global north.  Given the growing importance of measurement, to move forward we need investments to support and build the capacity of universities and organizations in focus countries. In addition, we need new tools that represent the languages, cultures, and contexts of the children and families served and methods that provide input on priorities and experiences directly from the families and communities most affected by programs and policies.

 3. Become more intentional about putting the data to use for change.

While there have been longstanding and valid concerns about the lack of good data in the field of early childhood, there are mountains of reports and information that are sitting on shelves and not being used.  Of the many challenges, we know that the data on children most often reflects a sectoral approach rather than holistic development, and aggregate data often masks local variation.  As new measures are emerging to address these issues, we have to use what we have on hand.  Moreover, we have to use data on children, families and programs for continuous improvement not just for narrow accountability or monitoring purposes, without deeper understanding of reasons for the results. We have to be more intentional about using demographic data which can serve as proxies for developmental risks when other data is not available and gather stories along the way that bring the numbers to life.

The goal of our work is promoting healthy child development, supporting families, assuring strong communities and advocating for appropriate policies. Measurement is not the goal, but rather it is a tool to help us achieve these goals.  Investments must be made to reach these goals, not just to measure them. At the same time, to use measurement effectively takes understanding of why we are doing it, capacity to do it well, and respect for local conditions. If we balance the opportunities, cautions and new directions emerging, we will make progress and move closer to a world where all children thrive.

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