Early Childhood

Studies on Preschool Training Deemed Challenging

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 11, 2009 4 min read
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It’s hard to conduct research on effective ways to train preschool educators because of the lack of standardization in their preparation and in the programs that employ them.

That’s the conclusion drawn by some of the heavyweights in the field who attended a meeting of early-childhood-education researchers this week at Georgetown University.

Even for some large-scale programs that are standardized across child-care centers, the effects of professional development haven’t been teased out from other aspects of programs that could also have an impact on children’s learning.

“To just do professional development without research, we won’t know which kind of professional development will work with which kinds of teachers for which kinds of students,” Deborah Vandell, the dean of the school of education at the University of California, Irvine, said during a discussion about the need for more research.

The purpose of the Dec. 8 gathering was to discuss progress made and to identify gaps in research on effective professional development for early-childhood education. The Early Childhood Educator Professional Development Program of the U.S. Department of Education; the Zero to Three program of the National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families; and Georgetown University’s Center on Health and Education sponsored the event.

At the conference, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius called for an increase in the quality of early-childhood-education programs.

“We’re trying to get out of the catch-up business,” Mr. Duncan said. If early-childhood education is “glorified babysitting,” he said, “we’re not changing people’s lives.”

Ms. Sebelius stressed the need for greater financial investment in preschool programs. “We sure don’t put the resources behind it,” she said.

Large-Scale Programs

The largest employer-sponsored child-care program in the country, which serves 200,000 children daily, is run by the U.S. Department of Defense. It serves children from infancy to age 12; more than half are younger than 3.

The child-care program for military families was begun after some families found the quality of care their children received in some states “appalling,” according to Barbara Thompson, the director of the children and youth directorate of the office of family policy at the Defense Department.

For effective early-childhood education, “you do need standards and oversight—a constant review of the program,” she told participants.

Ms. Thompson said that 98 percent of the centers in the program, which employs 15,000 staff members with direct responsibility for children, are nationally accredited. Child-care employees must have at least a high school education. The program provides training during the workday, pays providers to undergo training, and gives them raises when they reach certain training levels.

In the absence of state requirements for preschool teachers to have college degrees, the Defense Department’s model is worth emulation, concludes “The Learning Never Stops,” a study by Deborah J. Ackerman, a researcher at the National Institute for Early Education Research, at the New Brunswick, N.J., campus of Rutgers University.

Losing Sight?

Researchers also heard presentations about statewide early-childhood programs, one in Oklahoma and another run by the Louisiana education department.

The Louisiana program was started during the 2001-02 school year and enrolls more than 15,000 low-income children.

Mary Louise Jones, the administrator for pre-K-4 for the state education department, reported that the program is having a strong, positive impact on children’s learning.

“When most of our kids come in, they are scoring at the 10th percentile [on standardized tests],” she said. “They are leaving [scoring in a percentile] at the national average. That’s good.” The program uses the Developing Skills Checklist, published by CTB/McGraw-Hill, to gauge pupils’ progress. Children who take part in the Louisiana program are less likely to end up in special education and be held back a grade than low-income children who don’t participate, Ms. Jones said.

Michael L. Kamil, a reading expert at Stanford University, asked whether presenters were off-target in what they were examining. “We lapsed into success of programs rather than success of professional development of the programs,” he said.

“Without the professional development, we wouldn’t have the quality we have,” Ms. Thompson, of the Defense Department, replied.

Ms. Jones noted that all preschool teachers in the Louisiana program are certified to work in public schools. They receive 18 hours of professional development a year, she said, but she did not provide evidence on the impact of professional development itself on student outcomes.

Mr. Kamil observed that the expectations for learning that guide instruction in a public school setting, such as in the Lousiana program, may be producing a positive effect on children’s learning rather than the professional development provided.

“We need to do principled evaluation of professional development,” he said, “to see if it’s effective, rather than assuming it’s effective.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 16, 2009 edition of Education Week as Research on Preschool Training Deemed Challenging

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