Individual Head Start classrooms vary enough in quality that the ratings of more than a third of centers could change by random chance, according to a new study in the American Educational Research Journal. The results suggest those looking to improve the early education centers need to target support to individual teachers, not just to whole-school training.
The $9.4 billion Head Start and Early Head Start programs provide health and education to nearly 900,000 children from birth to the start of school. Both federal grant-related accountability ratings and states’ voluntary ratings evaluate the early childhood centers both by looking at their basic structure (such as student-teacher ratios or teacher credentials) and by observing instruction and interactions between teachers and students in a random selection of their classrooms.
But researchers from Northwestern and Stony Brook universities found that these samples of classrooms often don’t reflect the quality of the center as a whole. That’s because quality varies as much among classrooms within the same center as it does between centers—and those variations point to different problems Head Start centers need to address.
“We’re sometimes missing the full story of what’s happening in centers when we average [quality] and we don’t think about the variation that exists within classrooms within that school,” said Terri Sabol, an assistant professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University, who led the study. “If the point is that we really want to have clear targets for professional development, then, you know, we should consider how do we understand kids’ day-to-day experiences, which are ultimately happening in the classroom.”
The researchers analyzed federal data on nearly 6,600 children in 925 classrooms at 276 Head Start centers nationwide. They tracked the students’ progress in five skills—preliteracy, receptive language, pre-math, social development and problem behaviors—and also tracked the class size and environment, student-teacher ratio, teacher credentials, and instructional support in their classrooms.
More than half of Head Start centers had consistent quality; either all of their classrooms scored well or all scored poorly enough that the center would be required to recompete for its grant. However, 56 percent of centers had a variety of better and worse classes—and 20 percent of centers had wide disparities from classroom to classroom, with only 40 percent to 60 percent of classrooms meeting the minimum instructional quality.
Linking Quality to Student Progress
The study found significant classroom differences across all the indicators, from class size to instructional support, but they didn’t all equally affect students’ progress. On average, a center’s quality wasn’t linked to its children’s progress in academic and social skills, making it difficult to pinpoint what educators could improve. But within each center, classrooms with better instructional support were associated with better preliteracy and language skills and better social development among its children.
“These are classrooms where teachers are asking open-ended questions; they’re having rich dialogue and are actively engaging students,” Sabol said. “They’re really pushing children’s higher-order thinking.”
In the end, the study suggests as much as half of the total difference in centers’ quality can be explained by these differences from classroom to classroom. The study found 37 percent of Head Start centers—particularly larger centers where most classrooms aren’t observed—could get a different accountability rating if evaluators randomly chose a different set of classes.
The researchers accounted for differences in students’ backgrounds, but warned that they could not account for sorting within centers, such as placing most advanced students in the same classrooms. Moreover, the researchers have not yet looked at whether there are similarities among more inconsistent centers.
Since teachers are only observed once a year in federal and state rating systems, some of Sabol’s colleagues are working on a follow-up study to gauge how much teachers’ instructional practice varies over a school year.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.