Bentley Ponder is the Senior Director of Research and Policy at Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL). Ponder oversees DECAL’s external research studies and manages internal evaluation projects, policy analyses, and ongoing data projects. Past and present initiatives include validation efforts for the state’s tiered quality rating and improvement system (QRIS), longitudinal evaluations of Georgia’s Pre-K program, development of policies related to the state’s Cross-Agency Child Level Data System (CACDS), research projects for the state’s Child Care Development Fund (CCDF) plan, and a statewide early education economic impact study. He helped write Georgia’s Early Learning Challenge grant application in 2013. He received his doctorate in sociology from Georgia State University and has been with DECAL since 2005.
ED: How did you begin your career in early learning and development?
Bentley: The Georgia Pre-K program (GA PreK), a lottery-funded educational program for Georgia’s four-year-old children designed to prepare them for kindergarten, recently celebrated a birthday—it is 25 years old! I stumbled into early education during the early years of GA PreK. Early childhood work wasn’t part of my career plans. While I was earning my doctorate in sociology at Georgia State University, I was looking for a graduate research assistantship. I ended up being hired by a research group at Georgia State University that was conducting the first longitudinal study of children who participated in the 1995 GA PreK program. At first I was just a data collector, but in 2001 the director of the study went on sabbatical and there was an opportunity for me to move into more of a leadership role. I began to interact with what was then the Georgia Office of School Readiness—it later became the Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL)—and during those interactions, they got to know me and my expertise. When they decided to hire a researcher, they recruited me, and I have been here ever since.
I’ve had the opportunity to see DECAL and its emphasis on early learning grow. Our base is really the GA PreK program. We wouldn’t have a true early learning system without it. Although it isn’t our largest program, it has been foundational in setting high-quality standards, and it has allowed our state legislature to understand the importance of early learning for our state’s preschoolers. DECAL also oversees child care licensing, a federal nutrition program, and Georgia’s quality rating and improvement system (QRIS), Quality Rated. In 2012, we became the Georgia lead agency for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Child Care Development Fund (CCDF). We also house the state’s Head Start Collaboration Office, and administer an Early Learning Challenge (ELC) grant that was awarded to Georgia in 2013 and an Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership grant under which DECAL is serving over 200 infants and toddlers. Because we oversee all of these programs, we have the ability to look across programs, coordinate improvement efforts, and build a strong early learning system. It has also been fun to grow our research and evaluation unit. Initially, it was staffed by only me, and my primary role was to do a lot of data analysis. Now we have a team of six and the unit’s role has expanded to support the various early care and learning programs administered by DECAL. We have a robust research agenda and work closely with our early care and learning program directors to see what they need.
ED: What efforts have you and your organization been involved in to improve the quality of early learning?
Bentley: Our research and evaluation team’s primary mission is to ensure that we are using the latest research, data, and evaluation information to inform policy and practices across our early learning programs and grants. We focus on how to use evidence-based information to improve the quality of our programs. Our team is engaged in a number of different activities and projects. We do a lot of QRIS-focused research. At first it was just learning about what other states were doing; we weren’t ready to implement a QRIS but wanted to learn from others. We funded a quality study that took a sample of classrooms across the state, including infant-toddler, preschool, and GA PreK classrooms. Findings indicated that the majority of our infant-toddler programs fell in the low-quality range. Our PreK classrooms had good structural quality, but they needed to focus on the quality of teacher-child interactions. DECAL leadership used these results to inform some of our improvement efforts. For example, DECAL developed a cadre of infant-toddler specialists who support our infant-toddler programs to improve quality, and created professional learning communities for preschool and PreK teachers that focus on those critical positive teacher-child interactions. DECAL also used the findings from the quality study to help design our QRIS.
Some of our research and evaluation work is done in-house, and for some we hire outside contractors. When managing these contracts, we place a lot of emphasis on ensuring that the work they do is grounded in our context and connected to our programs.
ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?
Bentley: Our research and evaluation team is big enough to be its own unit, but not big enough to conduct randomized control trial studies or manage complex field data collection for DECAL. One of the challenges is figuring out what we can do directly and when we need to bring in outside contractors. Another challenge has to do with embedding research and evaluation into the overall mission of our agency. We have done a good job of asserting our team as an important part of the agency, but this can lead to challenges in being objective researchers. We are attached to our programs and we want them to be successful so this can be hard. This is an example of where it is really important to bring in outside contractors.
Another challenge is ensuring our team has the capacity to address all of our priorities. There is so much work to be done and sometimes we have to make decisions about what is most important. For example, I wish we published more. We have so much to share about the interesting work we are doing but, given our capacity and time constraints, publishing usually doesn’t rise to be a priority. One thing that helps with prioritization is if we have funding for a specific project. Currently, completing the validation study under the ELC is my priority.
ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in expanding access to high-quality early learning opportunities?
Bentley: I really believe that having a research and evaluation unit housed within our agency has infused the importance of research, evaluation, and data as part of our agency’s culture. Our program directors and agency staff embrace and use data and research on a regular basis to inform policy and programmatic decisions. They value the studies and evaluations we conduct, and use the information when deciding how best to use resources and improve programs. I’d encourage other early learning agencies to build a research and evaluation team, or figure out how to bring folks with this expertise into their regular work.
One specific example of how we’ve done this is through our QRIS validation study. We created an internal committee that includes staff involved in our QRIS, researchers, professional development specialists, and infant-toddler specialists. Since the beginning of the study, we have met every two weeks to dive into the data. It has been so beneficial in understanding and being able to use our data. I also encourage others to involve and engage program and other early learning staff in research, evaluation, and data work. If your research, study, or data analysis isn’t beneficial to the program and children being served, then why are you doing it?
A final suggestion is to consider that as researchers we need to be careful and not go overboard with our evaluation efforts. You don’t always need to conduct a survey or do an in-depth study, because sometimes useful information can be found elsewhere!
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