School & District Management

Study: Quality of 1st Grade Teachers Plays Key Role

By Linda Jacobson — September 20, 2005 5 min read
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Classroom teachers who give instructional and emotional support can improve academic outcomes for 1st graders who are considered at risk for school failure, concludes a University of Virginia study released last week.

For example, children whose mothers had less than a college degree achieved at the same level as children with more highly educated mothers when they were placed in 1st grade classrooms where the instruction was focused and direct and the teacher provided ongoing feedback to the students about their progress.

But if those socioeconomically at-risk students did not receive that kind of instructional attention, they scored lower on achievement measures than their peers.

The same pattern held true for children described by the researchers as “functionally at risk,” meaning that they displayed behavioral, social, or academic problems in kindergarten. When those students were assigned to classrooms where teachers were more sensitive, warm, and positive—the second set of teacher traits examined—the children performed at levels nearly identical to those of children who didn’t have a history of problems in kindergarten.

“Beyond academic achievement, children’s ability to develop a strong relationship with their teachers, characterized by low levels of conflict, is a key indicator of positive school adjustment, both concurrently and in the future,” write the authors, Robert C. Pianta, an education professor at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, and Bridget K. Hamre, a research associate there.

When children who were deemed functionally at risk were assigned to classrooms where they received little to no emotional support, their scores were lower than those of their peers who were without such risks.

Research Findings

Results from the study, “Academic and Social Advantages for At-Risk Students Placed in High-Quality 1st Grade Classrooms,” are featured in the September/October issue of the journal Child Development.

• The sample of 910 children is drawn from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, started in 1991.

• If placed in classrooms offering “low instructional quality,” children whose mothers had less than a 4-year college degree scored lower than their peers on achievement tests. If placed in supportive classrooms where instruction was direct and children received regular feedback on their work, they performed as well as students with more highly educated mothers.

• Children who displayed social, behavioral, or academic problems in kindergarten could overcome those difficulties in 1st grade—and perform as well as those without such problems. If they were placed in classrooms with a teacher who displays warmth and sensitivity. If assigned to teachers who did not have those traits, they scored lower than their classmates on measures of achievement and adjustment.

• Classroom quality can vary significantly from teacher to teacher and from year to year.

Nationwide Implications

The findings, which appear in the September/October issue of the journal Child Development, are significant, the researchers say, because they are drawn from “naturally occurring variation in everyday classroom interactions” instead of a specific program designed to improve the classroom environment.

“Thus, this research has implications for every school across the nation,” the authors write. “These findings provide evidence of the potential for everyday experiences in schools to greatly reduce children’s academic and social problems—to close gaps in the early school years.”

The research sample—910 children from the federal government’s long-running study on child care—is also significant.

For years, the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, financed by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, has produced findings on the benefits and pitfalls of various child-care arrangements from infancy through the preschool years.

For instance, the closely watched study, which has often been the topic of commentary in parenting magazines and on morning talk shows, showed that children who spent more time in center-based care displayed more behavior problems, but also made greater cognitive gains, than children in other types of care.

Now, those children, who enrolled in the study in 1991, shortly after they were born, are young adolescents. Therefore, new research from the sample will provide greater understanding of how children’s early experiences in life relate to experiences in school.

Mr. Pianta, however, couldn’t say for sure whether the children in 1st grade with behavior problems were the same ones who spent a lot of time in center-based child care.

Thomas L. Good, a professor of education at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, called the study “rigorous and important.”

“Their research is complex, well-designed, and uniquely important because it is richly grounded in observations of teacher and students’ classroom behavior that surrounds classroom tasks,” said Mr. Good, who also edits The Elementary School Journal.

There are limitations to the findings, however. Even though some children in the sample were identified as being at risk for problems in school, the overall sample in the NICHD study was not highly disadvantaged.

Not Representative?

Indeed, one of the criticisms of the project has been that the families that have been studied for so long are not representative of the general population. More than 700 of the children are white, about 100 are African-American, and only 50 are Hispanic.

“The fact that the overall sample was not highly at risk [based on race and socioeconomic status] constrains our ability to generalize findings,” the researchers acknowledge in the study. “These results need to be replicated among other high-risk groups before a more conclusive statement regarding the role of instructional and emotional support in moderating risk of school failure can be made.”

The study, its authors say, also doesn’t provide details on the specific interactions between children and their teachers that may lessen the risks of academic failure. But they suggest that it could help guide individual teachers regarding their experiences with a particular student or could be used on a broader scale in staff development.

Teacher education programs could also benefit by paying attention to the findings, Mr. Good said.

“Policymakers who are critical of teacher education programs often talk in ways that suggest that teachers need only verbal intelligence and subject-matter knowledge,” he said. “These data suggest that what teachers know, feel, and do are the critical determinants of student learning—both academic and social. Sure, subject-matter knowledge is useful, but so is a teacher’s understanding of students as social beings.”

While the findings are promising, the authors say, there is evidence that classroom quality can vary greatly within the same school. And just because a child gets a supportive and effective teacher one year doesn’t mean he or she will get one the next.

“If children are not systematically exposed to high levels of classroom support across time,” the authors warn, “the effects of such positive placements are likely to be short-lived.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2005 edition of Education Week as Study: Quality of 1st Grade Teachers Plays Key Role

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