Preschool Academic Skills Grow Stronger When Quality of Instruction Improves

But Only When Quality Is in Moderate to High Range
Jun 10, 2016

New research reveals that preschool prepares children to succeed academically when teachers provide higher quality instruction. However, in order for preschoolers to benefit from improvements in quality, classroom instructional quality must be in the moderate to high range. The work combines data from eight large studies of early care and education.

The findings, with important implications for publicly funded early care and education, were published in “Quality Thresholds, Features, and Dosage in Early Care and Education: Secondary Data Analyses of Child Outcomes,” a monograph for the Society for Research in Child Development co-authored by Margaret Burchinal of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Martha Zaslow of Child Trends, and Louisa Tarullo, director of human services research at Mathematica Policy Research. They found that as the overall quality of instruction in preschool classrooms increases, children experience better outcomes across a range of skills—but the needle only moved on language and reading skills when instructional quality was at or above a threshold.

The research team, which included Senior Researchers Yange Xue and Elizabeth Cavadel from Mathematica, also found that children appeared to benefit from a larger “dose” of center-based early care and education. “We found that children showed larger gains in academic skills when they attended more than one year of Head Start” Burchinal said. “In addition, children showed stronger skills when they had fewer absences from early care and education, and when their teachers spent more time engaged in reading and math instruction.” According to Burchinal, “Early childhood education is widely accepted as an effective way to improve opportunities for all children. The finding on number of years in Head Start supports the growing trend of two years of publicly funded preschool for children from low-income homes.”

Burchinal said that unlike most of the Head Start classrooms in the study, many early care and education programs do not meet a threshold of quality, provide a second year, or engage children in substantial amounts of time in math and reading instruction that enables children to make stronger academic gains. “The lowest quality programs are likely going to have to change a lot in order for us to likely see the kinds of improvement in language and academic skills that provide the foundation for succeeding in school,” she said. “Children showed the largest gains when teachers interacted with children frequently in engaging activities that were intentionally designed to teach those language and academic skills.”

According to Zaslow, “A key issue is whether it is possible to introduce intentional instruction into early care and education classrooms in a way that isn’t didactic, and that elicits the eager engagement of young children. Increasingly, the field of early education is finding approaches ways to introduce content in ways that are appropriate to young children’s development.” Tarullo added that “It is notable that federally funded and state-supported research data sets provided the opportunities for these groundbreaking meta-analyses. We look forward to seeing more empirical work focused on these crucial policy-relevant questions.”


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