Long before I was an early childhood researcher at Mathematica, I was a preschool teacher. I taught in an affluent neighborhood in Muntinlupa, Philippines, close to where I grew up. It was only for a year, but it drove home to me the incredible leaps children make developmentally in the first few years of life. At the same time, I was troubled by the great number of children and families in my community and beyond who did not have access to similar services, and this made me want to effect change at a broader scale. Eventually, my concerns about inequity in early childhood care and education led me to pursue a career in applied research, where I could influence and inform how decision makers at a systemwide level allocate resources to early child development.
In the time between my preschool teaching job and my career at Mathematica, I came to the United States to study psychological services in a master’s level graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania. I initially thought I would go into direct services, providing counseling or therapy to children. When I became a research assistant for a project at Penn that worked with the School District of Philadelphia’s Head Start program to produce high quality evidence that could inform effective policies to help children and their communities. I immediately fell in love with the never-ending pursuit of connecting research, practice, and policy. I realized I would need more tools to make those connections, which is why I pursued a doctorate in quantitative policy analysis in education.
I ended up at Mathematica in part because it offered what I liked best about my graduate studies. Although parts of doctoral research can be isolating, I always enjoyed working with a “lab,” so I was eager to be back in a team-based environment where everyone thrives on collaboration. As a graduate student, I gravitated to interdisciplinary learning, deepening my knowledge about early childhood development and education while developing complementary expertise in statistics, policy analysis, economics, and sociology. Mathematica has allowed me to keep combining the best of these related disciplines. In school, I thought broadly and holistically about the best ways to support children and families. Because Mathematica works with so many federal, nonprofit, and philanthropic partners whose interests include children, parents, and families, I have still been able to specialize in researching programs that benefit children, but now I see them through a broad lens that includes the whole family, the community, and the systems serving all three. Hearkening back to my most formative experiences in graduate school, I wanted to return to an applied research role, working to answer questions that could influence policy decisions—questions that might even have been raised originally by policymakers or practitioners.
Over time, my views on early childhood care and education haven’t changed much, but the focus of my research has. I used to focus on children’s outcomes, such as language development or positive peer relationships, studying interventions that might move the needle in those areas. Although my end goal has not changed, I’m increasingly interested in how we can improve systemic and sustainable supports for early childhood and education settings. I’m excited by the broad recognition now that if we want to improve early childhood learning, we need to think beyond what happens between teachers and children in the classroom. We need to think more about how to support and promote the well-being of the early care and education workforce, and continuously build the capacity of Tribal, state, and local agencies and organizations to anticipate, identify, and address the needs of the children, families, and providers they serve.
The pandemic has spotlighted the importance of child care for the functioning of society. The need for change existed before the pandemic, but the field is finally getting the attention it deserves from the media, policymakers, and the public at large. What is clear now is that issues around affordability, availability, and consistent quality of child care are extensive and systemic; and a growing number of policy proposals at the federal, state, and local level are designed to develop sustainable solutions at scale. I value being able to play my part in helping decision makers understand what most helps children, families, and their communities, particularly in a time of crisis.