New Study Finds Strong School Climate Key to Effective Early Learning
A new study says programs with strong organizational structures hold the key to effective early-childhood education, and lists exceptional administrators and collaborative teachers as the two most important components of those structures.
The study was conducted by researchers with the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (UChicago Consortium) and the Ounce of Prevention Fund, or Ounce, a Chicago-based nonprofit that advocates for and provides high-quality early-childhood education.
They wanted to find out what strong organizational settings looked like in early-childhood education. A research paper based on their findings was recently published in the journal Early Education and Development.
But the researchers work began several years prior when researchers from UChicago Consortium and Ounce developed a new measuring system that used surveys of teachers, staff members, and parents to determine the level of organizational supports in early-childhood education settings. This system became known as the Early Education Essentials.
Through these surveys, the researchers identified early-childhood education centers with strong and weak essential support scores. They then went into two centers with strong scores and two with weak scores to observe. Each pairing featured one school-based center and one community-based center. All of the centers were located in Chicago and in low- and working-class income neighborhoods. Their research validated what they had found in the surveys as the team was able to see how these elements worked in practice.
They found that effective instructional leaders who are "strategically focused on children's development and early achievement" are the most important element to having a strongly organized program.
Debra Pacchiano is the vice president of translational research for Ounce and served as the co-principal investigator on this study.
She says the strongest early-childhood education leaders differentiate themselves from weaker leaders in one key way.
"It's so easy for leaders to fall into a compliance mindset where they are consumed by a myriad of program standards," said Pacchiano. "In contrast, the leaders who are very successful in creating the strongest climate and conditions for positive practice and change, these leaders have a vision that is purpose driven. It's rooted in developmental science and very importantly developmentally appropriate practice."
Pacchiano notes that these leaders tend to have just a few goals that they constantly focus on achieving through collaboration.
The researchers found that the presence of collaborative teachers to be the second most important element in a strong early-childhood education setting.
"We must understand that improvement is achieved at the local level through collective responsibility and action of the people closest to the work," said Pacchiano. It's the school leader who is responsible for establishing the climate and a set of routines focused on excellence and program improvement, she said.
The other essential elements in order of importance include, involved families, a supportive environment, ambitious instruction, and "parent voice," or the idea that parents feel respected by all staff and have influence over programming.
The elements the study associates with weaker programs—such as a concentration on meeting requirements for compliance and teaching children letters and numbers in preparation for kindergarten—stand in sharp contrast to the stronger programs that focus on students' social and emotional learning first and let the more academic work fall into place behind that.
Children from low-income families tend to be concentrated in programs that focus on drilling letter and number recognition.
"What we see is this heavy additional inequity emerging because of that focus, that reaction back to compliance and back to getting kids ready for kindergarten," said Pacchiano.
Pacchiano calls the study's findings innovative and transformative as they represent a shift away from early-childhood education improvement efforts that have focused on classroom teaching practice and classroom materials, which come with costly and time-consuming assessments.
She argues that the study shows a 20-minute survey can be just as effective as those efforts in pointing out where early learning programs are strong and where they need improvement.
Pacchiano also finds it problematic that, while the Every Student Succeeds Act requires that K-12 schools pay attention to school climate and conditions, that required focus is largely absent in early-childhood education.
"What we have to grapple with in early childhood is that without a simultaneous focus on strengthening classroom practice and the organizational contexts that enable that effective practice, it is unlikely that schools and centers will ever realize meaningful and sustained improvements in the quality of ECE teaching and learning," said Pacchiano. "We must focus on both."
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