A new report by three early childhood researchers provides a blunt assessment of what they see as the ineffectiveness of current strategies for improving pre-k quality and makes suggestions for a new approach. The report, Lifting Pre-K Quality: Caring and Effective Teachers, focuses on the need to move on from so-called input-based strategies (i.e. requiring bachelor’s degrees for preschool teachers) to strategies that have more evidence of positive impact on children.
The report advocates for more, better professional development for teachers and points to two models of teacher development programs that it views as successful examples.
The authors of the report are Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley; John W. Gasko, director of the Statewide Initiatives Children’s Learning Institute at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston; and Rebecca Anguiano, a doctoral candidate at U.C. Berkeley. Fuller and his colleagues focus on two professional development programs— the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) at the University of Virginia and Texas Early Education Model (TEEM), which was designed by the University of Texas Medical School in Houston. CLASS was developed by Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.
Before developing CLASS, Pianta and his research team observed over 600 preschool classrooms and found that, though teachers were good at being nurturing and responsive to kids, they lacked the skills necessary to create a rich learning environment in the classroom. The CLASS intervention used these findings to develop mentoring and professional development for teachers, as well as a new curriculum that focuses on teaching language and pre-literacy skills through supportive but structured teacher-student interactions.
The Texas Early Education Model focuses less on teacher-student interaction and more on the curriculum itself that is used to develop pre-literacy, math and social skills. TEEM uses mentoring and (primarily web-based) courses to train preschool teachers how to provide more “intentional” instruction that ensures children are developing skills and knowledge they need before kindergarten.
The two programs have a lot in common: both focus intensely on giving teachers intensive professional development through mentoring. Both are research-based and provide teachers with tools to assess their own progress.
Fuller was in Washington D.C. in October, when a small group of pre-k researchers and advocates gathered at the Center for Law and Social Policy to talk about new ideas for the future of early childhood education. Those present at the event discussed how to keep the preschool movement advancing and maturing in the coming years, as well as what ideas and suggestions we can glean from the report.
“This is an engineering problem,” Robert Pianta noted, referring to the difficulty of scaling up successful preschool models when there is so much variability across early childhood programs. Both CLASS and TEEM attempt to overcome this challenge by providing interventions in classrooms, with direct mentoring for teachers and extensive materials (including curricula) supplementing the teacher-development program. At the event, Pianta and Landry both pointed to this approach as being key to successfully lifting quality in a classroom and reducing the “noise” that can prevent other approaches from being effective.
At the event, several people noted that input-based mechanisms for improving preschool, such as requiring lower student-to-teacher ratios, are among policies that have been tried in the K12 system with varying results. (Sara Mead, a former director here at the Early Education Initiative, wrote a blog post on this.) Professionalizing the preschool workforce by requiring bachelor’s degrees is a similar strategy: It takes a policy that is commonplace in K12, and expands it down to preschool. Both of these policies have potential when it comes to raising pre-k quality—but it is crucial how they are executed. For example, we need to consider that some bachelor’s degrees may not signify much more content-knowledge than an associate’s degree, depending on where those degrees were earned. And we need to consider what other strategies have been put into place to raise quality in the classroom. Ultimately, neither are “cures” for the quality problem that plagues many preschools.
Both the report and the event should stimulate continued conversation around which approaches to improving program quality are proving successful, and which approaches simply aren’t successful enough. Ultimately, these frank conversations are crucial if we want pre-k programs to help children reach their full potential.