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Rutgers professor discusses creation of early education institute

Dr. W. Steven Barnett, senior co-director of Rutgers’ National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), discussed the impetus for the development of the institution and the distinctive approach the institution employs in its research in an interview with The Daily Targum. 

NIEER was developed to “(provide) nonpartisan research that enhances the early childhood education field and encourages policies and practices promoting the physical, cognitive and social-emotional development children need to thrive in school and beyond," according to the institution's website.

The institution employs a research methodology that is distinctive in the sense that it involves collaborating with public policymakers and practitioners to interpret empirical information and data in order to make informed decisions on policy.

Barnett said the joint evaluation that comes to fruition is more robust and critical than an evaluation that is procured through a traditional scientific method that might not enable such collaboration from the get-go. 

He also said the collaborative research approach that NIEER employs is one that is respectful of the knowledge of policymakers and the limitations of the knowledge of researchers. 

“Our approach in evaluating public policy programs is one that emphasizes the importance of engaging the policymakers and the program administrators from the very beginning. The traditional social science model is to keep the policymakers and practitioners at arm’s length,” Barnett said. “The goal of the institute is to provide information to policymakers and the public so that better decisions are made about the education of young children.”

Although the research methodology is distinct from the research methodology that is employed in other fields, such as developmental psychology and economics, NIEER was not the first to invent collaborative measures to research in its respective field. Barnett credits Pew Charitable Trusts — which helped fund NIEER for a decade — as helping to develop NIEER’s methodology. 

NIEER also works to shape education policy across the nation and in other cities such as Oslo, Paris, Berlin, Seoul, Tokyo, Sydney, Bogota and Buenos Aires, according to its website.

As for New Jersey, Barnett said they have done a multitude of things to conduct specific studies to answer questions that schools and policymakers have. NIEER conducted a study in the school district of Elizabeth to test the question regarding what the advantages and disadvantages of just speaking English were compared to speaking dual languages in the context of preschool. 

NIEER found that kids learned English just as well in both models, but that they only learned their home language if it was also taught in school, thereby raising the policy question of how schools can support academic competence in languages other than English. 

Barnett’s interest in creating NIEER was multifaceted. He said that as a child he attended schools in different parts of the nation given his father’s role in the navy and need to move frequently. His experience in going to different schools enabled him to recognize the magnitude in which pedagogical styles and educational material varied from school to school. 

Barnett also said his niche interest in economics enabled him to intersect his knowledge in economics to education. Namely, his immersion in the niche economics discourse of human development allowed him to integrate his interest in early education. 

His role as an expert witness in the Abbott v. Burke case also served to shape his interest in starting NIEER, he said.

In Abbot v. Burke, Barnett helped answer integral questions by serving as an expert witness. Questions were raised during the case such as how well are the students doing in the Abbott district. Barnett said that he was able to contribute to the assessment that in Newark and other districts, the children were beginning kindergarten 18 months behind in their language abilities. 

Barnett said, “(this assessment) suggests that most of the achievement gap problem that they were worried about (was present) before they (got) to kindergarten.”

The effective preventable measures should have been in place so children would not lag behind in kindergarten, he said. The preschool these children were attending in their district had too low of a perceptible impact on the children’s learning and development. 

“They were not getting a preschool program that would dramatically change their trajectory,” Barnett said. “That is why they (were) 18 months behind.”

So, it was his role in this case as well as his experience in economics and education that is what collectively enabled Barnett to create NIEER. NIEER is a physical manifestation of the sorts of work Barnett was already doing in his career and at the same time, it is a physical manifestation of the work he hopes to continue to immerse himself in, he said. 

Barnett said that he thinks the work NIEER does is tantamount to the work of a Global Positioning Satellite (GPS). The analogy is that both NIEER and a GPS share the quality of pinpointing where one is and where one wants to go. 

NIEER and a GPS also provide feedback if one starts moving in the wrong direction. Barnett said that the collaborative research they do allows them to see where they are in terms of the questions being raised by the community and where they want to end up policy-wise.  

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