Early Childhood

Preschool “Works” When Instruction Is Good to Excellent, Study Finds

By Lillian Mongeau — June 10, 2016 2 min read
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Preschool teachers must offer high-quality instruction to change academic outcomes for their students, according to a new analysis of eight large preschool studies conducted by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Preschoolers in center-based care showed larger gains in reading and language when their teachers spent more time supporting their learning—but only if the quality of instruction was in the moderate to high range,” said Margaret Burchinal, a senior scientist at Frank Porter Graham, in a statement.

Though it may sound obvious that students of better teachers learn more, the importance of a teacher’s sensitivity in the early years is a hotly debated topic. Many have argued that a sensitive teacher is more important to child outcomes in the early years than a structured curriculum.

“Having a sensitive caregiver is really important for young children—but it probably isn’t sufficient alone for promoting academic skills. There has to be content and an intentional approach to instruction,” she said.

The study also found that students who spent more years enrolled in preschool programs were also more likely to make gains in academic subjects, as well as in their ability to regulate their own behavior and play with other kids.

The analysis, Quality Thresholds, Features, and Dosage in Early Care and Education: Secondary Data Analyses of Child Outcomes was published in a June monograph for the Society for Research in Child Development.

The researchers included data from eight studies: The Head Start Family and Child Experiences Surveys from 2006 and 2009, the Head Start Impact Study, an 11-state study of prekindergarten programs conducted by the National Center for Early Development and Learning; an evaluation of North Carolina’s pre-K program, an evaluation professional development models completed by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development grant called My Teaching Partner; Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research and the follow-up study of the National Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project.

Most of the children studied were from low-income families and enrolled in either a Head Start or a state preschool program. The analysis evaluated how measures such as teacher quality, years enrolled in preschool, child attendance and hours per week spent in care affected children’s social emotional and academic skills.

“The lowest quality programs are going to have to change a lot in order for us to likely see the kind of improvement in language and academic skills that provide the foundation for succeeding in school,” Burchinal said. “Children in our study showed the largest gains when teachers interacted with children frequently in engaging activities that were designed to teach those language and academic skills deliberately.”

File Photo: Mya, left, and Mia Johnson, 4, practice a cheer with teaching assistant Krystal Garcia at Pre-K 4 SA’s Southside location in San Antonio in 2013.—Jennifer Whitney for Education Week

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.