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Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy

What We Do

Research and Evaluation

building blocks

For quality research, timely results, and objective, actionable findings that help you address your most pressing education needs, start with Marsico. Using approaches and methodologies that work for your context, your budget, and your schedule, Marsico's researchers and evaluators conduct scientifically based research on education programs, products, and policies and provide you with results you can use to guide mid-course corrections.

Marsico's clients include federal, state, and local education agencies, foundations, nonprofit and community organizations, education publishers, program developers, and corporations.

No matter how big or small, bring Marsico your research question. Marsico will help you find the answer.

If you would like to discuss your technical assistance needs with Marsico, please contact Marsico's Assistant Director

STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMI2E2)

The Marsico Institute is part of the national STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMI2E2) in partnership with the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Center is funded by the Office of Special Education Programs, US Department of Education. Our work in the Center is focused on:

  • Developing and enhancing the knowledge base on engagement in STEM learning opportunities for young children with disabilities;
  • Implementing high-quality technical assistance and professional development to increase engagement for young children with disabilities in STEM opportunities; and
  • Engaging partners and stakeholders from diverse disciplines and industry in work to increase the inclusion of young children with disabilities in early high-quality STEM learning experiences.
Children's Measurement Project—Learning Trajectories to Support the Growth of Measurement Knowledge: Pre-K through Middle School

How do children think and learn about geometric measurement—length, area, and volume? Funded by the National Science Foundation, this research and development project focuses on the learning and teaching of measurement in early and elementary education. Conducted in collaboration with Jeffrey Barrett and Craig Cullen from Illinois State University, Marsico is producing research-based developmental progressions—descriptions of the levels of thinking children move through as they learn— in measurement across a seven-year span. These developmental progressions are the core of research-based learning trajectories—with full trajectories including instructional activities and teaching strategies (Sarama & Clements, 2009). Visit the Learning Trajectories website at to learn more.

Marsico is testing the hypothesis that such well-researched learning trajectories will provide specific, generalizable resources and tools to improve instruction, assessment, and curriculum development. In exposing these learning trajectories to rigorous evaluation, and refining them as necessary, Marsico 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. Marsico actually wrote the learning trajectory for measurement for the Common Core State Standards (and the standards themselves were based on this learning trajectory), and wishes to take it to the next level.

Presently, Marsico has submitted for publication a study of a learning trajectory for area, including a comparison of different approaches to teaching. Marsico's study of length will be next.

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

Marsico has been funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to combine our work on the Building Blocks math curriculum with colleagues in other fields. The Connect4Learning 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 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.

The CREMAT Project—Using Rule Space and Poset-based Adaptive Testing Methodologies to Identify Ability Patterns in Early Mathematics and Create a Comprehensive Mathematics Ability Test

Increased interest in early mathematics has led to an increased need for assessments. With an increase for assessment is a need for better assessments, which are diagnostic, telling researchers and teachers more about what children know and can do and what they still need to learn. And this needs to be done efficiently—so that assessments take up a minimum of valuable school time. Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the CREMAT Project has enabled Drs. Sarama and Clements, along with colleagues (and mother-and-son team) Curtis Tatsuoka and Kikumi Tatsuoka (recently deceased), to create and test a new early mathematics assessment. This assessment will use innovative statistical and computer technology to give teachers more useful and detailed information about children's knowledge of mathematics in less time than existing assessments. Fast but fully informative assessments help teachers really know their students, and support their use of the powerful teaching strategy of 'formative assessment' or individualizing learning. This year is the first in which the computer-adaptive test will be piloted.

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

Evaluating the Efficacy of Learning Trajectories in Early Mathematics

Learning Trajectories are seen more and more in education—standards, assessments, curricula, and National Research Council reports are based on them. Drs. Sarama and Clements, recognized widely for their research and development of learning trajectories, decided to now truly put them to the test. The Evaluating the Efficacy of Learning Trajectories in Early Mathematics is a national research project funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences (IES) that evaluates the usefulness of learning trajectories for improving student achievement in early math. That is, Marsico is investigating if they are actually more effective than other approaches and, if so, how to best use them to support young children's learning. Visit the Learning Trajectories website at to learn more.

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

Mile High Early Learning's Babies Ready for College (BRFC) program came into existence out of a need to affect a child's academic success by equipping parents and family, friend, and neighbor caregivers with the knowledge and expertise to prepare their children academically and socially before they even enter preschool. The program helps caregivers and families ensure their child is ready for school and stays on track to graduate from high school, prepared for whatever course lies ahead. BRFC's goal is to begin planting the seed of expectation for higher education in families living in chronically under-resourced communities, improving children's long-term educational outcomes through parent and caregiver education and developing civic leadership among parents and caregivers. The weekly 10-topic curriculum is offered in the Denver Metro community and selected Denver Public Schools. Trained facilitators conduct each session, and early childhood educators provide developmentally appropriate activities for the children. The Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy was commissioned by and has been partnering with Mile High Early Learning for over three years to conduct an ongoing evaluation of the BRFC Program.

Jefferson Prosperity Project (JPP)

Marsico was commissioned to evaluate the Jefferson Prosperity Project (JPP), a major collaboration between local educational, business, non-profit and government agencies seeks to tackle poverty in the greater Denver area. Marsico is collecting data to evaluate the project and provide strategic feedback to maximize the JPP’s positive impact on the local community.

Since 2010, the JPP has been changing the way human services and education services are provided to low-income families with their innovative, implementation-ready program that aims to see tangible improvements by the end of the 2017-2018 school year. Made possible by the alliance between, and contributions from key partners like Colorado Head Start, the JPP provides vital support services for families, including those that focus on school readiness, family self-sufficiency, and health/mental health well-being.

Learning and Teaching with Learning Trajectories [LT]2

Learning and Teaching with Learning Trajectories [LT]2 is a web-based tool for early childhood educators to learn about how children think and learn about mathematics and how to teach mathematics to young children (birth to age 8). The website,, allows teachers to access information about the learning trajectories for math, review short video clips of classroom instruction, and test their own understanding of children’s development. Funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supports the development of children’s software other platform improvements. Additional funding from the Heising-Simons Foundation supported the initial development of the website and continues to fund development of important standards, assessment, and infant toddler content to the site.

Lyrics to Learn (L2L)

Lyrics2learn is a reading supplement that sets reading text to rhythm and music. In 15 minutes, three days per week, L2L addresses over 85% of the Common Core Reading Standards by blending many of the history, science, and writing standards into lessons. 50% of the content is fictional literature, using relatable, real world examples of building character traits such as responsibility, determination, empathy, and perspective. L2L also mirrors and simulates test-taking vocabulary, concepts, strategies and expectations of the Colorado State PARCC exam, preparing students for the rigor and demands of the state’s most significant accountability measurement. Marsico is helping L2L evaluate its efficacy in a large school district in Colorado.

Final Report Executive Summary
DREME Network: Math and Executive Function Project (EF)

DU’s Marsico and Kennedy Institutes are members the Development and Research in Early Mathematics Education (DREME) Network, funded by the Heising-Simons Foundation. 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. Marsico wishes to improve children’s early math competence and in turn their overall education success. The DREME Network focuses on mathematics from birth through age eight years with an emphasis on the preschool level. Based on what Marsico knows about executive function (EF) and math development, the math and executive function project focuses on developing and evaluating enhanced mathematics activities designed to contribute to both the development of mathematical and executive functions in early childhood. Marsico has developed and is testing a series of activities to determine whether and how they shape children’s mathematical and EF behaviors. The knowledge gained will be helpful in guiding teachers as they prioritize teaching practices and effectively promote the development of children’s mathematical thinking and executive functions.

National Center on Early Childhood Development, Teaching, and Learning (NCECDTL)

The Marsico Institute is one of six partners forming the National Center on Early Childhood Development, Teaching and Learning (NCECDTL). The Center is funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Head Start, and Office of Child Care. This five-year grant is aimed at impacting the training and technical assistance needs of Head Start and child care programs and systems across the country. The goal of the NCECDTL is to identify, develop, and promote the implementation of evidence-based practices that are culturally and linguistically responsive and lead to positive child outcomes across birth to five early childhood programs, and to support strong professional development systems. The Marsico team contributes expertise in many areas, including mathematics, social-emotional development, early writing, play, coaching, and other areas.

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 (1) examination of the availability, quality, and cost of service offered by existing public and private sector providers, (2) the projected need for services during the coming ten to twenty years, and (3) 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 has been developed to represent and carry out the work of child care, Head Start, higher education, public and private education, special education, advocacy groups, and North Dakota state departments. The Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy (MIELL) supports 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.

DREME Network: Preschool-Elementary-Coherence Project (COHERE)

DU’s Marsico and Kennedy Institutes are members the Development and Research in Early Mathematics Education (DREME) Network, funded by the Heising-Simons Foundation. 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. Marsico wishes to improve children’s early math competence and in turn their overall education success. The DREME Network focuses on mathematics from birth through age eight years with an emphasis on the preschool level. The Preschool-Elementary Coherence (COHERE) project is in its third year and is investigating the relationship between school district and school efforts to create policy within and across levels of schooling to create greater coherence in mathematics instruction and continuity between preschool and the early elementary grades. The COHERE study is designed to investigate how these changes are experienced by teachers and students in classrooms and how that, in turn, influences students’ understanding of the nature of mathematics and mathematical proficiency.

Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Central

The Marsico Institute serves as a partner on the Regional Education Laboratory (REL) Central, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences and serves the United States through ten designated regions. The REL Central serves seven states: Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming. To address the priorities and interests of these states, REL Central works in partnership with school districts, state departments of education, and others to use data and research to improve academic outcomes for students and to bridge the worlds of education research and education practice. REL Central offers various supports including: applied research studies and studies in progress that address partnerships' research questions; training, coaching, and technical support; workshops and coaching that support the use of data and research; and "Ask A REL" annotated bibliographies produced in response to stakeholder research questions

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 successfully 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, Drs. Sarama and 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.