If you were looking for the ideal preschool for your son or daughter, what would you look for? You’d probably expect your child’s preschool to hire well-trained, qualified teachers, have small class sizes and maintain a low teacher-student ratio. If so, your list might look a lot like the benchmarks of National Institute for Early Education Research (NIERR), whose mission is to support early childhood education initiatives “by providing objective, nonpartisan information based on research.”
NIERR publishes an annual yearbook that determines if a state’s pre-K programs meet ten benchmarks considered to be “minimum standards for educationally effective preschool programs.” The criteria include teachers with a bachelor’s degree and specialized training in early childhood education; a comprehensive curriculum that covers domains of language/literacy, math, science, socioemotional skills, cognitive development, and other areas; and a maximum class size that is less than or equal to 20 children, with a child-to-teacher ratio of 10:1 or lower.
There’s only one problem: none of the items on NIERR’S checklist, while important, appear to be the difference makers in student outcomes according to a study in the May/June 2008 issue of Child Development by Andrew J. Mashburn of the University of Virginia and others.
Findings indicate that despite their relevance to discussions of program development and quality, none of the minimum standards recommended by NIEER, or the nine-item NIEER quality index, were consistently associated with measures of academic, language, and social development during pre-K, among a large sample of 4-year-old children who attended state funded programs.
But let’s get back to your hypothetical preschool. If you’re like most parents, you would probably want your child to have a teacher who is nice to your child. Someone who creates a warm, nurturing environment and shows affection and respect. In that, your list would actually be a step ahead of NIERR’s benchmarks. The Mashburn study would back you up. It found preschool children benefit most when they experience instructionally and emotionally supportive interactions with their teachers.
“High-quality instructional interactions occur when teachers provide children with feedback about their ideas, comment in ways that extend and expand their skills, and frequently use discussions and activities to promote complex thinking. For example, teachers who provide high instructional support ask ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions to children to explain their thinking, relate concepts to children’s lives, and provide additional information to children to expand their understanding,” Mashburn said.
Thus the second of my list of five ideas to improve early childhood education: If we want effective high quality preschools, we’re going to change the way we look at and evaluate early childhood education. We need to recognize that preschool quality is a function of both process AND structure. As Mashburn’s study concluded:
Results indicate that in state-funded pre-K programs serving 4-year olds, requiring teachers to have a college education or degrees in ECE and mandating small class sizes and child-to-teacher ratios may not be sufficient to ensure that children are learning in classrooms. Rather, these results confirm that for young children, learning occurs via interactions, and high-quality emotional and instructional interactions are the mechanisms through which pre-K programs transmit academic, language, and social competencies to children…Thus, we argue that program policies and regulations aimed at improving the effectiveness of children’s exposure to pre-K should focus more directly on improving interactions that children experience in classrooms.
In other words, success is not merely a function of what teachers have (a degree, a small number of students, etc.) but what teachers do.