What have we learned – and what else do we need to know?
The Institute of Education Sciences (IES), established in 2002 as a research division of the U.S. Department of Education, asks this question in a recent report — “Synthesis of IES Research on Early Intervention and Early Childhood Education.”
The report summarizes findings from IES-funded early education research that has been published in peer-reviewed journals through June 30, 2010. The studies examined a broad range of early childhood research projects focusing on curriculum, professional development models, child outcomes in early math and literacy, children’s social/emotional development, and more. The authors focused on research that has looked at improving “school readiness for children who are at risk for later school failure,” as well as at improving “developmental outcomes and school readiness” for children from birth through age five who have or are at risk of having disabilities. In addition to summarizing what has been learned from IES-funded projects, the authors suggest “avenues for further research to support improvements in early childhood education in our country.”
The report examines four areas of research and describes a number of findings within each area. Highlights are presented below:
1 – Early Childhood Classroom Environments and General Instructional Practices
- “In all of these analyses, teacher-child interactions that reflected higher levels of instructional quality and emotional support were associated with better child outcomes.”
- Most infrastructure and program design features (such as class size, child-to-teacher ratio and teacher credentials) “were not directly related to children’s academic and social outcomes,” however researchers suggest that “structural features create the conditions in which high-quality teacher-child interactions occur.”
- “Teachers with more years of education and training in early childhood were more likely to use specific strategies (e.g., talking about the meaning of words in the book) that, in turn, were associated with greater gains in children’s vocabulary.”
- Research “results suggest that improving the quality of emotional and instructional support in the classroom is related to social and academic gains for children.”
2 – Educational Practices Designed to Impact Children’s Academic and Social Outcomes.
- “There is a need to improve characteristics of the classroom language environment.” Studies found that teachers’ language often lacked advanced linguistic concepts. In addition, “identifying effective means for elevating and sustaining the quality of teacher-child instructional interactions that emphasize children’s language, literacy, social, and cognitive development is a critical avenue for education research and has featured prominently in much of the IES-supported early childhood research.”
- IES research suggests “that there is very little instruction in mathematics and science occurring within early childhood classrooms. Most preschool teachers limit mathematics instruction to naming common shapes and counting up to relatively small numbers (e.g., 10 or 20).”
- Children can learn from interacting with peers who have advanced linguistic or social skills. However, in many publicly funded preschool programs, “children’s eligibility to participate is based on the presence of risk factors, often attributable to disability or poverty. Research supported by IES has found that this results in a significant reduction in the level of language, literacy, cognitive and social skills to which children within a given classroom are exposed during interactions with their peers.”
- “Children’s abstract reasoning skills can be improved through specialized activities.” For example, teaching children how to use the oddity principle – figuring out what object doesn’t belong based on size, color or shape – can “provide a critical foundation for children’s learning in mathematics and literacy and can be taught to young children who have not yet acquired these skills.”
- “There is a need to differentiate more- and less-effective curricula that support children’s early reading.” The report says, “Today, there are far more curricula available and in use than have been evaluated scientifically for their impacts on children.” Missing is research that “isolates these active ingredients and identifies thresholds of curriculum implementation needed to achieve positive impacts for children.”
- “Teachers can support children’s early reading skills through read-alouds.” Findings showed that “children in classrooms whose teachers were taught to use print-focused conversations received a significant boost in early literacy skills and, more importantly, these early boosts endured through the end of first-grade, as shown on standardized measures of word recognition, spelling and reading comprehension.”
- “Children with problem behaviors may benefit from particular types of reading instruction.” Researchers have found that “as a group, children with problem behaviors had lower reading performance than their peers.” But some reading programs help moderate “the negative association between externalizing problem behavior with children’s alphabet knowledge, phonemic blending skills and word reading.”
- “Teachers’ use of structured curricula can improve young children’s math achievement.” In addition, “Young children may require a lengthy period of instruction to learn some key math concepts.”
3 – Measuring Young Children’s Skills and Learning
- “Some commonly used assessments may not yield reliable scores and thus should be used cautiously.” For example, the report notes that “some commonly used assessment tools might not yield the same pattern of results for different groups of young children.” The authors recommend research to develop more sophisticated tools for measuring young children’s skills.
- “Progress monitoring and data-based decision making tools might improve instructional practices.” The report says, “As important as it is for practitioners to have access to tools that yield reliable and valid scores to measure young children’s skills across various areas, it is also necessary for practitioners to be able to use these tools effectively–to monitor children’s progress over time and to make important decisions about children’s status, such as whether a child exhibits a disability.”
4 – Professional Development for Early Educators
- “Classroom instruction can be improved by providing professional development to teachers.” In addition, “Improving teachers’ instruction through professional development can improve children’s learning and development.” Research found that coaching and mentoring programs have a positive impact. One study found, “that when teachers participated in a one-semester professional development intervention targeting phonological awareness and language comprehension, children in their classrooms made significantly greater gains on measures of letter knowledge, blending of sounds, understanding of print, and writing compared with children enrolled in control classrooms.” However no effect was found on “children’s vocabulary skills or understanding of initial sounds.”
- “Technology can play an important role in designing effective professional development.”
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The findings in the report lead the authors to develop further research questions, including:
“What are the crucial features of high-quality early childhood education?” For example, the report says, “we need more evidence about the ways in which specific features of classroom quality are related to children’s development and learning in specific domains.”
“Which instruction is most effective for which children and under what circumstances?”
“How do we effectively and efficiently support teachers in improving their instruction?”
Finding these answers through further research will continue to inform and expand the best practices in early education and care.