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Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy

Marsico Institute


While improving the quality of early learning experiences is a worthy investment in the future, real world practices have only recently begun to catch up with this idea. MIELL works to increase the connection between research and practice through:

  • our partnership with Colorado's early childhood system-building efforts.
  • our original research on innovative classroom- and home-based interventions
  • our work integrating and translating the best research in the early childhood field around the country and the world

Broadly speaking, MIELL's research agenda is focused on the contribution that adults make in creating stimulating and nurturing environments for young children, thereby establishing a foundation for lifelong learning. Our projects are described below:

Children's Measurement Project—Learning Trajectories to Support the Growth of Measurement Knowledge: Pre-K through Middle School

This project is studying the learning and teaching of measurement in early and elementary education. Conducted in collaboration with Jeffrey Barrett form Illinois State University, we are producing research-based developmental progressions in measurement across a seven-year span. These developmental progressions will build on and elaborate existing research-based learning trajectories (Sarama & Clements, 2009).

This project will test the hypothesis that current learning trajectories for geometric measurement provide specific, generalizable resources and tools to improve instruction, assessment, and curriculum development. In subjecting these LTs to rigorous evaluation, and refining them as necessary, we will produce a more complete research basis for them as well as for the measurement and fraction modeling called for by the Common Core State Standards. We actually wrote the learning trajectory for measurement for the Common Core State Standards (and the standards themselves were based on this learning trajectory), and we wish to take it to the next level.

City of Phoenix Head Start Learning Institute

In an effort to increase the knowledge, skills, and understanding of concepts of mathematics and inquiry-based practices for teachers and staff, the City of Phoenix Head Start program’s annual professional development training series through the Head Start Learning Institute, will be on foundational early mathematic skills for young children. To assist the City of Phoenix Head Start program to achieve this goal, the Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy (MIELL) with staff from the Kennedy Institute, will provide professional development focused on developing teachers’ instructional practices in early mathematics through a series of one-day Learning Institutes. MIELL will also provide monthly virtual technical assistance to instructional coaches and staff to support teachers in implementing into practice their learning from the Institute in a manner that is specifically contextualized to their sites.

Connect4Learning (C4L)—Early Childhood Education in the Context of Mathematics, Science, and Literacy

We have been funded by the NSF to combine our work on the Building Blocks math curriculum with that of colleagues in other fields. The Connect4Learning interdisciplinary curriculum will connect four basic domains of learning. In addition to mathematics, the grant includes experts in science (Kimberly Brenneman, Rutgers University), literacy/language (Nell Duke, Michigan State University) and social-emotional development (M. L. Hemmeter, Vanderbilt University). Early childhood is full of debates about subject matter, with arguments arising about new emphases on mathematics taking too much time away from literacy. Science is rarely mentioned. Further, there is little research on whether an emphasis in one area necessarily means less emphasis in others, or whether they can be combined each to the benefit of others. The researchers believe the latter, and believe Connect4Learning curriculum will encourage all children to develop their full potential in all four areas-a potential that is greater than often realized.

Early Childhood Framework

The Early Childhood Leadership Commission (ECLC) is leading the project to update the Early Childhood Colorado Framework with the help of the recently appointed Framework Steering Committee. The ECLC is committed to engaging stakeholders with cross domain experience and expertise to ensure the second iteration of the Framework remains a resource and guide for communities and partners across the state. This public-private partnership reflects the ECLC’s dedication to advance all components of the Framework:

  • early learning
  • family support and parent education
  • social, emotional, and mental health, and health

The Marsico Institute of Early Learning and Literacy is leading the research and stakeholder survey component of the project. Marisco will be working collaboratively with Early Milestones Colorado and Civic Canopy on all aspects of the project. For more information visit the Colorado Office of Early Childhood.

Early Childhood Framework

Evaluation of the Northeast Denver Babies Ready for College (BRFC) Program

The Babies Ready for College (BRFC) Program officially launched in Northeast Denver as part of an effort to equip parents and family, friend, and neighbor (FFN) caregivers with the knowledge and expertise to prepare their children academically and socially before they even enter preschool. The BRFC does this by (1) improving children’s long-term educational outcomes through parent and caregiver education and (2) developing civic leadership among parents and caregivers. The program includes a series of ten weekly workshops, home visits and/or phone calls, a resource fair, and a weekly parent-child class. Participation in the BRFC Program has increased since its inaugural cohort in 2010, yet no formal evaluation of the program and its outcomes has been conducted to date. Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy staff will work closely with BRFC staff (1) to assess parents’ and family, friend, and neighbor (FFN) caregivers’ perceptions of BRFC participation and (2) to assess children’s developmental skills as a result of parents’ BRFC participation. Findings will be used to make program improvements.

Learning and Teaching with Learning Trajectories (LT2)

In the course of decades of research and development work funded by the NSF and IES, Drs. Clements and Sarama have developed a powerful tool for professional development of teachers of early mathematics, “Building Blocks Learning Trajectories” (BBLT) web application. This software tool presents early childhood mathematics learning trajectories, connecting the three critical components of early childhood mathematics: the mathematical content, how children think about and learn that content, and teaching strategies. BBLT provides scalable access to research-based learning trajectories via descriptions, videos, commentaries, and interactive experiences. Currently we are working to revise the BBLT in with enhanced videos and functioning that will be available on multiple technology platforms, funded by the Heising Simons Foundation.

Math and Executive Function Project (EF)

Another DREME Network project will develop and evaluate enhanced mathematics activities designed to contribute to the joint development of mathematical and executive functions in early childhood. The knowledge gained from this work will be useful in guiding teachers’ and parents’ interactions with children. Thus, with Heising-Simons Foundation funding, Network members and selected colleagues will collaborate to conduct research and development projects that are innovative and rigorous, basic and applied, and that address high-priority early mathematics topics that will inform and motivate other researchers, educators, policymakers and the public.

North Dakota Early Care and Education Study

North Dakota’s legislature recently passed Senate Bill 2229 which requires the state to study the development, delivery, and administration of comprehensive early childhood care and early childhood education. The study must include an examination of the availability, quality, and cost of service offered by existing public and private sector providers, the projected need for services during the coming ten to twenty years, and the ability of public and private sector providers to address the expansion of facilities or the creation of additional facilities. Numerous state departments and local agencies statewide have voiced their support of early care and education programs, projects, and initiatives. A committee representing child care, Head Start, higher education, public and private education, special education, advocacy groups, and North Dakota state departments has been developed to carry out this work. The Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy (MIELL) will support the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction (NDDPI) in conducting this state-mandated study on the development, delivery and administration of Comprehensive Early Childhood Care and Early Childhood Education in North Dakota. MIELL will work closely with a State Advisory Committee (AC) to provide insight on early childhood needs; obtain data required in conjunction with this study; review, analyze and synthesize data, and prepare a report for the legislature’s review.

North Dakota has experienced significant population growth after decades of loss due primarily to the development of energy in western North Dakota. Families are taking advantage of the opportunities with both parents working outside of the home; in fact, 73% of children ages 0 to 5 live in households with both parents working. However access to high-quality ECE options is a challenge statewide. If this current level of access continues, approximately 20,576 children ages 0 to 5 may enter kindergarten over the next five years without any formal early learning experience. Marsico is providing technical assistance to North Dakota state agencies to develop an early care and education framework to ensure all children have access to high-quality early care and education.

Click here to view the full study report.

Preschool-Elementary-Coherence Project (COHERE)

DU’s Marsico and Kennedy Institutes are members of a Heising-Simons Foundation-funded group, the Development and Research in Early Mathematics Education (DREME) Network. The goal of DREME is to advance the field of early mathematics research in the U.S., significantly improving how early math is taught and learned. We wish to improve children’s early math competence and in turn their overall education success. The DREME Network will focus on mathematics from birth through age eight years, with an emphasis on the preschool level. The Preschool-Elementary Coherence (COHERE) project will investigate the relationship between school district and school efforts to create policy alignment and curricular coherence on coherence of learning opportunities and student experiences.

The TRIAD Project

A large project that is just being completed is "Scaling Up TRIAD: Teaching Early Mathematics for Understanding with Trajectories and Technologies," the third of a sequence of rigorous evaluations of a model of scaling up successful interventions, in this specific case, to increase math achievement in young children, especially those at risk, by means of a high-quality implementation of the "Building Blocks" math curriculum, with all aspects of the curriculum–content, pedagogy, technology, and assessments–based on a common core of learning trajectories. The reason this is important is that although the successes of some research-based educational practices have been documented, so too has the inability U.S. schools to successful adopt and scale up these practices. A particularly challenging educational and theoretical issue is scaling up educational programs across the large number of diverse populations and contexts in the early childhood system in the U.S., while avoiding the dilution and pollution that usually plagues such efforts to achieve broad success. With previous funding, Sarama Clements created a research-based model to meet this challenge in the area of mathematics, with the intent to generalize the model to other subject matter areas and other age groups. The field also needs transferable, practical examples of scale up; empirical evidence of the effectiveness of these examples; and focused research on critical variables–all leading to refined, generalizable theories and models of scale up.

Results of the present study indicated high levels of fidelity of implementation resulting in consistently higher scores in the intervention classes on the observation instrument and statistically significant and substantially greater gains in children's mathematics, again with substantial effect sizes in preschool and continuing into kindergarten and 1st grade, significantly more so in the "Follow Through" condition in which Kindergarten and 1st grade teachers also received professional development.