Research shows: preschool academic skills improve only when instruction is good to excellent

Last year I made a report on the effects of early education and preschool and the evidence was nuanced with both regions that showed good effects or no effects. This new study shows that there is one important factor that just can’t be overlooked. It’s all about the quality of the teachers… again.

From the press release:

New research combining eight large child care studies reveals that preschools prepare children to succeed academically when teachers provide higher quality instruction.

Margaret Burchinal, senior scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Instituteat the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, led a research team whose findings have groundbreaking implications for publicly-funded early care and education. They found as the overall quality of instruction in preschool classrooms increases, children experience better outcomes across a range of skills, but the needle only moves on language and reading skills when instructional quality is at or above a threshold.

“Preschoolers in center-based care showed larger gains in reading and language when their teachers spent more time supporting their learning — but only if the quality of instruction was in the moderate to high range,” Burchinal said.

Burchinal’s co-authors included Martha Zaslow of Child Trends and Louisa Tarullo of Mathematica Policy Research. Their team also found that children appeared to benefit from a larger “dose” of center-based child care.

“Children showed larger gains in academic skills when they attended more than one year of Head Start, had fewer absences, and spent more time in reading and math instruction,” Burchinal said. “Early childhood education is widely accepted as an effective way to improve opportunities for all children, and this finding about Head Start supports the growing trend of two years of publicly funded preschool for children from low-income homes.”

Burchinal explained that unlike most of the Head Start classrooms in her study, some programs do not meet a threshold of quality, offer a second year, or provide sufficient time in math and reading instruction to enable children to make academic gains.

“The lowest quality programs are going to have to change a lot in order for us to likely see the kind of improvement in language and academic skills that provide the foundation for succeeding in school,” Burchinal said. “Children in our study showed the largest gains when teachers interacted with children frequently in engaging activities that were designed to teach those language and academic skills deliberately.”

Burchinal explained that if lower-quality preschool classrooms do not improve children’s reading and language skills, this could inform the conceptualization and design of publicly funded programs, as well as efforts to improve existing learning opportunities for children. Shifting the field’s current focus from overall quality and instead zeroing in on content may be more effective in promoting children’s academic learning.

“At present, our field focuses on broader classroom quality and teacher-child interactions,” she said. “Our study found that only small gains in language and literacy outcomes were associated with higher quality interactions between teachers and children, but large gains were associated with high quality instruction in those areas. Having a sensitive caregiver is really important for young children, but it probably isn’t sufficient alone for promoting academic skills. There has to be content and an intentional approach to instruction.”

Abstract of the monograph:

This monograph addresses the hypotheses that preschool children benefit most strongly when early care and education (ECE) is at or above a threshold of quality, has specific quality features, and/or is of longer duration. These issues are pivotal in recent policies designed to improve the quality of ECE, especially for children from low-income families. Evidence of quality thresholds in which ECE quality has stronger impacts in settings with moderate to high levels of quality than in settings with low quality would inform policy initiatives in which monetary incentives or consequences are allocated to ECE settings based on their level of quality. Evidence that specific features of quality, such as quality of teacher–child interactions and of literacy and mathematics instruction, are predictors of gains in child outcomes could help inform quality improvement efforts. Evidence that more time spent in center-based ECE or in instruction in specific content areas predict larger gains among preschoolers could be useful in designing public preschool programs such as Head Start or prekindergarten.

Secondary data analyses of eight large studies of preschool children in center-based ECE were conducted. Analyses focused on quality thresholds and quality features examined the extent to which three types of quality measures predicted gains in children’s language, literacy, mathematics, and social skills. The measures comprised (1) global quality measures that provide an overall or global rating of quality, focusing on interactions as well as on physical features of the environment, activities, and routines; (2) interaction-specific measures that focus in depth on the quality of interactions between teachers and children with respect to instructional and emotional support; and (3) domain-specific measures that focus on the quality of instruction and stimulation in specific content areas such as early language and literacy. The goal was to provide replicated analyses with data from several projects in order to address each question. Multilevel analyses that controlled for entry skills were conducted, and results were combined by using meta-analysis, nonlinear and nonparametric analyses, and propensity score analyses.

With respect to thresholds, the analyses suggest that increases in the quality of instruction are related to larger gains in language and literacy outcomes, but only in higher quality classrooms. Results point to stronger associations between quality and child outcomes in higher versus lower quality classrooms for measures of the instructional quality of teacher–child interactions and of the quality of specific activities thought to promote early literacy, such as teaching phonemic skills and book reading. In addition, the items focusing on quality of interactions on the global measure also predicted acquisition of language and social skills in higher but not in lower quality classrooms.

With respect to quality features, interaction-specific and especially domain-specific measures of quality remained significant predictors of child outcomes, whereas global measures of quality were never significant positive predictors, when both global and more specific measures of quality were included simultaneously in analyses. There is thus consistent evidence that more specific measures of quality are better predictors of child outcomes.

With respect to dosage, several approaches were used in operationalizing both the cumulative and current dosage of children’s exposure to ECE. Propensity score analyses that included baseline scores on outcomes to control for selection into larger dosages suggested that children with two as opposed to one year of Head Start had stronger vocabulary and literacy skills both immediately upon exit from Head Start and at the end of kindergarten. Fewer absences and more observed time spent on instruction were associated with stronger gains in literacy and mathematics skills. Finally, findings revealed that more time spent on instruction in classrooms with higher overall quality was particularly important to the development of mathematics skills. No other replicated evidence of quality by quantity interactions emerged.

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