Support, Data Aid Pre-K Teachers

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This article was originally published in Education Week.

A yet-to-be published study of preschool sites in four states shows that giving prekindergarten teachers access to mentors and to immediate data on children’s pre-reading skills can have a positive effect on student performance, regardless of the teachers’ own education levels.

The findings, in a study conducted by the Children’s Learning Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, may add to the debate over the role of a formal college education for preschool teachers.

“Of course, we would like teachers to be well educated,” said Susan Landry, the director of the center, which came up with the approach being studied.

“But families need to put their children in child care,” she said, “and our approach is to try to come up with a model that gets the job done until we reach the day when we have the right kinds of salaries and the right workforce.”

The study looks at a model customized by the University of Texas center.

The study looked at teachers at 158 schools in four sites: Corpus Christi, Texas; Miami-Dade County, Fla.; Prince George’s County, Md.; and outside Columbus, Ohio. They were randomly assigned to a program or a control group in the study, paid for by the Institute of Education Sciences, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation, all federal agencies.

Improved Instruction

The teachers’ training levels varied. Those studied in Maryland, for example, were certified teachers, while the study also included associate’s-degree-level Head Start teachers in Ohio and Miami childcare providers who lack college training.

Teachers in the program group first took an Internet-based course—developed by Teachscape Inc., in San Francisco—that focuses on early literacy and other school-readiness skills, conducted in a classroom with a facilitator. They also were randomly assigned to a classroom mentor after the course to use a personal digital assistant, or PDA, for collecting student-performance data, or to have both.

Compared with the children in classrooms where teachers did “business as usual,” Ms. Landry said, those taught by teachers who had taken the course scored higher overall on vocabulary, oral language, and other skills.

The preliminary findings also suggest that the mentoring and the use of PDAs can be even more effective in certain programs. For example, in Miami, where teachers without either bachelor’s or associate degrees worked in child-care programs serving children from low-income families, significant improvement was shown in children’s learning when both mentoring and the feedback from the PDA were used.

“If you have the most need, because of teachers’ lack of training” and the preschoolers’ lack of language skills, Ms. Landry said, “you want to give it everything.”

The researchers also found that teachers’ overall instruction—reading to pupils, teaching about letters, designing lesson plans—improved if they had mentors and used the PDAs. And while mentoring for teachers at all levels has become a highly recommended practice, teachers who used the hand-held devices were found to have some advantages over those who only worked with a mentor.

“The technology really helps,” Ms. Landry said. “They get immediate feedback on what to do with which children.”

Ms. Landry noted that not all children in the classes that were studied reached the same point academically.

“Children are starting out at different places,” she said. “But everyone was gaining.”

Caution Urged

At least one expert urged caution, however.

“It is hard to believe that a person with little or no educational background” could be as effective as a trained teacher, said Jerlean Daniel, a deputy executive director of the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children.

She added that the “state-policy context” in each site also could have been a factor in the results. Ohio, for example, has worked to build an early-childhood professional-development system, she said.

Marcy Whitebook, the director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, at the University of California, Berkeley, said the study might provide some creative ways to improve outcomes, but it doesn’t answer the question of how to create an effective early-childhood educator.

“When you switch the discussion to early childhood, you have to take into account that you don’t have an accepted floor of preparation,” she said. But supporters say the research shows that a demonstration project can be “scaled up” to work in typical early-childhood-education settings. The training, the mentoring, and the PDA are being used in all of the Prince George’s County district’s Head Start and pre-K classrooms, with both teachers, and paraprofessionals.

“It is moving kids forward,” said Maryclaire Dunlap, the Early Reading First project coordinator for the 134,000-student Maryland district.

She said the PDA is especially helpful in targeting children’s phonological skills—their familiarity with the sounds that make up words. The PDA is used to give the teacher immediate information on how well a child is meeting expectations.

“Once they see where the kids are, they’ll develop a little plan for each child,” Ms. Dunlap said.

More than 3,000 classrooms throughout Texas, including both pre-K and child care, also are using the program. And observers say having teachers from various educational backgrounds learn together—and giving them the same tools in the classroom—encourages those with less education to take more classes and earn degrees.

“These teachers are edified, and they learn ways to work with the children,” said Cynthia Johnson, a project coordinator for the Texas Early Education Model, a statewide effort to improve early-learning programs. “It impacts their self-esteem and makes them part of the field.” The program also continues to be used in Head Start centers and pre-K classrooms in Prince George’s County.

The University of Texas research has been presented at professional conferences and is to be submitted for peer review.

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