Good preschool teachers don't give children the answers; they help children get there on their own by "stretching children's thinking."
So says Robert Pianta, Dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and a recognized expert in early education, in a new video on effective classroom interactions that interweaves advice and policy discussion with clips of teachers talking and singing with their students. The video, which offers a helpful engaging overview of the latest thinking on early education, is designed in part to promote more use of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, or the CLASS, a tool for measuring what happens in minute-by-minute increments between teachers and students. As explained in a new policy brief by Pianta and colleagues, the system has been used in more than 2,000 classrooms to assess teaching quality. (Work on CLASS is funded in part by the Foundation for Child Development, which is among Early Ed Watch's funders as well.)
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The CLASS, its promoters say, isn't about monitoring for the sake of monitoring. The point is to help teachers create more meaningful exchanges in their classrooms. Recent studies have shown that an increase of just over a point in a CLASS score translates to improved achievement for children. And a mounting pile of research is showing that high-quality interactions between an adult and a child - teacher and student - are keys to the kingdom of real, lasting learning. (Just last week, for example, we wrote about new research in Pediatrics showing that strong language development is correlated with parents and young children engaging in lots of back-and-forth conversation.)
"What we're learning is that there are elements of what teachers know that are important," Pianta says in the video, "but it's far more important what teachers do with children in those classrooms."
The system enlists specially trained observers to enter classrooms and record what they see. It is designed to measure how well teachers are able to provide emotional support for students, how ably they create organized and invigorating classrooms and how much they spur children to think, talk and reflect on what they have learned or what problems they are trying to solve.
Head Start centers, for example, will soon be using the system en masse to monitor the quality of what happens in their classrooms. When the Head Start Act was reauthorized by Congress in late 2007, the law required that programs use "a valid and reliable research-based observational instrument" for evaluating interactions between children and teachers. A year later, the Office of Head Start published a memo encouraging the use of CLASS for this purpose. This year, the office covered the cost of three-day training sessions for Head Start administrators who supervise teachers. Prices for group trainings in how to use the CLASS vary from several hundred to several thousands of dollars depending on how many days of training are needed.
Before the arrival of these kinds of monitoring systems, the only way to determine the quality of a pre-K program -- aside from, say, enrolling your own children and watching from the sidelines -- was to look for largely input-driven indicators like low student-to-teacher ratios or whether staff members had college degrees. (These proxies, for example, are used by the National Institute for the Early Education Research for want of better measures.)
The CLASS system shouldn't be the end-all-be-all for evaluating classroom quality, and there can be problems with putting all eggs in one monitoring basket. But at the moment, CLASS is one of the most tested, reliable methods out there for measuring high-quality early education. We hope it can help to elevate discussion about what really works in early education classrooms - and how to make them better.