- Federal and state early-childhood education accountability systems randomly assess the quality of Head Start within a sample of classrooms to inform decisions about which centers should have their funding renewed. But this method might be leading to inaccurate conclusions about which centers are meeting standards, according to a new study published in the American Educational Research Journal.
- Led by Terri J. Sabol of Northwestern University, the study finds that classroom-level quality — such as class size, child-adult ratio, teacher education level and the instructional support provided to children — can vary significantly and that funding decisions for 37% of the centers in their sample would have been different if more classrooms had been assessed.
- The authors acknowledge the “cost and time burden” of assessing a larger sample of classrooms, but they say that because the stakes are high — whether a Head Start program will continue receiving funds to serve children or receive a rating that accurately communicates to parents the type of early learning experience their child will receive. It’s important for researchers to determine how many classrooms are necessary to assess in order to get a more accurate reading on quality, they write.
The findings, they add, also have implications for school administrators. “Although it is important to select a high-quality school, our results suggest that it’s also important — if not more important — to find high-quality teachers within schools,” they write.
Being assigned to a high-quality classroom is especially important for children at risk of struggling in school, according to earlier research by Bridget Hamre and Robert Pianta at the University of Virginia. They found that when children whose mothers had low educational levels were placed with 1st-grade teachers who were caring and provided focused instruction and frequent feedback, the students achieved at the same level as those with more highly educated mothers.
If students in the sample displayed behavior or academic problems in kindergarten, they were also able to overcome those issues. The researchers, however, also found classroom quality varied significantly across schools and from year to year.
Consistent quality across classrooms within a school is just as important for older students. More recently, Pianta co-authored a study showing that 5th-graders who had “higher-quality interactions” with their teachers throughout the school day were more likely to report positive feelings toward school, were more engaged in schoolwork, and had better scores in math and reading than students not experiencing such interactions.
The “results suggest that, especially, as students’ school experiences become more divided across teachers, paying special attention to maintaining consistent, supportive relationships across these settings is critical to students’ development and learning,” they write.