Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow, LEAP Fellow

Sharon Wolf

University of Pennsylvania

Dr. Sharon Wolf is an Associate Professor in Human Development and Quantitative Methods at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Trained as an applied developmental psychologist, Sharon studies how young children’s social environments shape their development, and how early childhood educational interventions can promote development and reduce inequalities. Prior to joining the faculty at Penn, Sharon was a postdoctoral research scientist at the Global TIES for Children research center at New York University and a National Poverty Fellow with the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she was in residence at the US Department of Health and Human Services.

She received her Ph.D. in 2014 in Applied Psychology with a concentration in Quantitative Analysis from New York University. Sharon has extensive experience working with research-practice-policy partnerships in West Africa, using rigorous research to provide evidence on policies and programs that improve children’s development and learning.

Research focus
Sharon Wolf is an expert in child development and how early family and school environments affect learning outcomes. She studies the links between poverty, social policies, education, and child development through experimental and quasi-experimental methods. This work includes assessing the role high-quality education plays in bolstering development for children who face adversity. Much of her work includes partnering with local organizations or governments to conduct research that directly informs local policy and program priorities related to early childhood development and education.

What have I achieved during my fellowship?
During my fellowship, I have expanded projects and begun several new ones. First, I have continued a project in Ghana (Quality Preschool for Ghana) which has become the first longitudinal impact evaluation of a preschool quality improvement program in sub-Saharan Africa. Children are currently being tracked for a seventh year, and medium-term protective effects of improved quality preschool have been documented during the pandemic when schools were closed. In addition, I have started two new large-scale projects using SMS-messages to improve parental engagement in both Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, both evaluated through field-randomized trials. Together, the projects document the promises and complexities associated with using light-touch interventions to change parental behaviors, particularly during challenging periods such as the pandemic. Finally, in collaboration with two former Jacobs Fellows, a new project in rural Côte d’Ivoire recently launched that uses a two-pronged approach to reduce child labor and improve learning and schooling outcomes. This community-randomized trial tests the impacts of unconditional cash transfers and educational-quality improvement through Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) paired with e-coaching and tests the impacts of cash transfers alone, TaRL alone, and cash transfers and TaRL combined.

My plans for the future
The projects that were generated during my fellowship have generated new research directions. First, I aim to expand my research on the critical window of early childhood development to look at the combined effects of supporting children during a second critical window: adolescence. Building on a previous preschool quality improvement intervention study, in future plans I will embed a second randomized trial to implement an adolescent support intervention. This project will enable the first examination of how intervening during two critical periods of development – early childhood and adolescence – separately or combined, can help children reach their potential along the course of their life trajectories.

Second, I plan to build on my work in school and family settings to consider how these two important contexts interplay and can be targeted simultaneously to promote positive outcomes for at-risk children. Future projects that are in development or already underway will aim to intervene in both home and school environments in order to examine how supports across different contexts can be leveraged to maximally improve children’s development.