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Getting specific about what works in early learning classrooms

Child-involved, teacher-assisted activities and a curriculum that structures time and engages children are key features of effective classroom instruction

May 21, 2019


Rob Grunewald Economist, Community Development and Engagement (former)
Ben Horowitz Project Director, Community Development and Engagement
Getting specific about what works in early learning classrooms
Getting specific about what works in early learning classrooms, 3 column
Paula Keller for Minneapolis Fed

Research shows that early learning programs can support a child’s development and successful transition to kindergarten. But not all early learning programs are equal. Evaluations reveal differences across programs in the rate and the long-term sustainability of developmental gains.

A straightforward conclusion to these findings is that program quality matters. But which program characteristics are associated with positive outcomes for children?

Rob Grunewald ECD video still, 1 column

A passion for encouraging investments in kids

In a companion article and videos featuring Economist Rob Grunewald, learn about the history and impact of the Minneapolis Fed’s work in early childhood development.

Read more

We know investments in early childhood programs are important, but we also know there is tremendous variation in the results of those investments, said Katherine Magnuson, professor at the School of Social Work, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“We are not going to be satisfied and sit back and say ‘the programs are built, we just need to scale them up or implement them,’” she continued. “It is more pressing than ever to figure out what does work.”

With other colleagues, Magnuson has conducted meta-analyses of early childhood development studies as far back as the 1960s to help sort out what program characteristics are consistent with stronger outcomes for children. The studies show that only spending more time in a program doesn’t necessarily produce better outcomes for children. However, the data suggest that starting to attend a program at ages two or three can have a larger impact than starting earlier or later. Finally, creating much smaller classroom sizes didn’t seem to have a noteworthy impact on child outcomes.

Taken together, the results suggest that what happens in an early learning program’s classrooms may be more important than the total time spent in a program or the class size.

An effective curriculum helps teachers structure time in the classroom, engages children, and revisits key learning concepts at the right frequency. Data show that curricular enhancements can add an additional half year of learning.

“When you use a developmentally appropriate, trajectory-related learning curriculum, you get a lot more out of the program,” Magnuson said.

An effective curriculum helps teachers structure time in the classroom, engages children, and revisits key learning concepts at the right frequency. Data show that curricular enhancements can add an additional half year of learning.

Notably, increasing the requirements for an early learning teacher to attain academic credits and degrees in education doesn’t seem to add value to child outcomes. “The difference between no early childhood education training and skills and some is important … [but] the evidence to suggest that additional credits and degrees really have a strong or even meaningful relationship with child outcomes just hasn’t been there.” Magnuson said.

Nevertheless, the relationship between teachers and children is a critical ingredient for positive child outcomes, so there is value in finding the most effective ways to support teachers’ skills through training and coaching.

Getting specific about what works in early learning classrooms, 2 column
Paula Keller for Minneapolis Fed

Classroom observations lead to insights on what works

Dale Farran and her team of researchers aim to get to the bottom of what works in early childhood education by understanding how time is spent in early learning classrooms. In 2014, Farran, a research professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning in Peabody College at Vanderbilt University, led a research team on a project with Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS).

Farran, her team, and administrators at MNPS had a lot of questions about how gains from preschool can be sustained into elementary school. A Vanderbilt study of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K Program (VPK) found that randomly assigned enrollees to public school-based preschools made substantial gains in achievement over the course of their year in VPK compared with children who were assigned to a control group. However, by grade three, these gains had dissipated. On a number of measures, control group children even scored better than children who attended VPK.

The VPK study raised a number of questions about the developmental approach and effectiveness of preschool classrooms. It also raised concerns about how well elementary school classrooms build on the experiences and skills preschool children bring with them.

One concern is that focusing on constrained or rudimentary skills in preschool, such as print-word identification and basic math, may not correspond with the development of skills children need to move forward in school, such as problem solving skills, critical thinking skills, and receptive and expressive vocabulary skills.

“Perhaps the issue is that pre-K programs have not impacted those skills that are likely to be sustained and built on,” Farran said. “So if it is just constrained skills [being taught] in a very didactic way in these VPK classrooms, children are not prepared to be great learners.”

The research project in Nashville gave Farran’s team an opportunity to dig deeper into these questions by meticulously observing classrooms and analyzing which classroom characteristics are associated with positive outcomes. Observers coded how each minute is spent in classrooms, including the transitions from one activity to the next.

For example, on average, in a seven-hour day, 34 minutes were spent on reading readiness and 116 minutes were spent on child-directed activities, while 68 minutes were spent on transitions between activities. Observers also coded the preschool classroom environment, particularly individual teachers’ and children’s behaviors.

By factoring in variability in time usage and classroom environment as well as child assessment results, researchers were able to tease out which classroom characteristics are associated with positive child outcomes. Through this process, the Vanderbilt team identified eight practices that each has effects roughly equivalent to an additional quarter year of learning:

  1. Less time in transitions
  2. Higher quality of instruction
  3. More positive emotional climate
  4. Teachers more often listening to children
  5. Greater time in sequential activities during child activity centers
  6. More time in associative/cooperative interactions
  7. Higher levels of involvement by children
  8. More math opportunities

A key theme from the findings is that child-involved, teacher-assisted activities that enrich children’s learning beyond a constrained set of skills are beneficial. The alternative—expecting four-year-olds to learn by listening to a teacher—didn’t appear to boost children’s development in the long term.

“Teachers can’t differentiate instruction if they don’t listen to children, if they are talking all of the time,” Farran said.

After integrating best practices into classrooms over a four-year period, MNPS succeeded in reducing transitions, creating more positive classroom environments, and increasing teacher listening, but did not see improvements in the other practices on the list. To help make more robust changes, Farran’s team is creating a web-based tool with funding from the National Science Foundation to help coaches and principals work with teachers to fully implement the practices in their classrooms.

Meta-analysis meets time journals

The Nashville study resonates with one of Magnuson’s findings about preparation for early childhood teachers: In the world of early childhood education, attaining academic credits and degrees is not associated with positive child outcomes.

Farran noted that “very few teachers are prepared for how you have to engage young children. Most of the preparation seems to involve more didactic interactions with children and what you are going to cover.” Instead, she said, “teachers should be asking, ‘What do children know?’ and then, ‘How do you build on what they know?’ and, ‘How do you find out what they know?’”

The work of Magnuson and Farran and their teams suggests that policymakers should move forward with important investments in early childhood programming, but with care and attention paid to ensure that they are doing so efficiently. Program design is important for achieving the biggest return on investments in our youngest learners, and replicating a K-12 classroom for three- and four-year-olds might not lead to sustainable gains in closing racial or economic achievement gaps.

Katherine Magnuson and Dale Farran presented on day one of the Minneapolis Fed’s Innovation in Early Childhood Development and K-12 Education Conference, which took place on October 23–24, 2018. A video and slides from their session, “Early Learning Program Characteristics and Child Outcomes,” are available on the conference web page.


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Ben Horowitz
Project Director, Community Development and Engagement
Ben Horowitz writes about policies and programs impacting affordable housing, early childhood development, and investments in low- and moderate-income communities.