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CLASS® and Its Impacts on Teachers and Students

10 Jun 2021 by Allie Kallmann

We’re still soaking up the wisdom shared by our many, many excellent speakers at the spring 2021 InterAct Summit. From its inception, Teachstone has been an organization based in research. Because the CLASS is reliable and valid, teachers and programs trust it to give meaningful, accurate, and actionable information. To learn more about the current work being done in the field, we invited co-founder Bob Pianta to give an update on new research findings.

Here’s a taste of what he shared:

Exciting research in the field is focusing on the interactions that matter most.

One major research project is centering interactions across the preschool and early elementary years in Fairfax, Virginia. Knowing how important these interactions are, researchers are following over 2,000 children’s outcomes from preschool through third grade and studying the connection to CLASS scores. Thus far, they have found small but significant associations with students’ literacy, math, executive function, and social skills in both pre-K and kindergarten. Other classroom factors into student outcomes? Unsurprisingly, the rigor of content (“are children being appropriately challenged?”) and the amount of time spent on instruction (“what’s the dosage?”) play into children’s results. However, the effects of content and instruction are magnified when teachers also exhibit high-quality interactions. Challenge and dosage are meaningful, but their combination with high-quality interactions make them come to life.

Researchers are also seeing the power of stacking high-quality experiences. Sure, any one year has a relatively small impact of its own, but when both pre-K and kindergarten experiences are quality, the benefits begin to compound. It’s not just 1 + 1 = 2 -- the summative outcome is greater than the sum of its parts. And, importantly, high-quality experiences seem to be helpful for all students, including those from a variety of language and cultural backgrounds.

International research is also showing the importance of interactions, even across different cultures. One causal study, from Ecuador, randomly assigned children to first grade classrooms and beyond. This allowed researchers to more clearly pinpoint the effects of teachers on children, finding that, as expected, children were benefiting the most in classrooms where teachers earn a higher CLASS score. Just as researchers are seeing in Fairfax, with repeated years of quality, children are experiencing really substantive gains that last long-term, relative to their peers with teachers less skilled at interactions. This Ecuador work isn’t an outlier, either. A meta-analysis of studies conducted in 16 countries, bringing in data from over 4,400 teachers and 42,000 students, showed similar overall patterns and links to student learning. It seems that no matter the setting, the high-quality interactions that are CLASS’s focus are critical to children’s learning.

CLASS is effective for defining and measuring quality at scale.

The research has long showed that responsive teaching is important for children’s learning across age levels. This concept, measured in more specific areas using CLASS, can itself be broken down into two main ideas: positive management and routines, and cognitive facilitation. And each of those has a unique and positive effect on children’s outcomes.

Overall, children in classrooms with responsive teaching grow more across the developmental areas, including language and literacy, working memory, inhibitory control, and their relationships with adults. And while the bifactor, or two-component, approach is meaningful for research, Dr. Pianta shared that the three domain structure that most preschool and elementary school teachers are familiar with is just as useful as ever for defining and developing high-quality interactions.

Improved interactions come from focused attention and intention.

That’s why professional development that centers CLASS shows results. (Just ask our friends in Louisiana.) The definitions in the CLASS create a shared lens for understanding what effective teaching looks like, lending itself well to professional development and new teacher training. One of these PD interventions is MyTeachingPartner (MTP), a web-mediated coaching program. Forthcoming research in Child Development shows that the changes in teacher-child interactions, resulting from MTP, are the way that coaching improves student learning.

This connects the dots between earlier research findings for teachers and for students. Teachers with MTP coaches grew more sensitive in their interactions with students, increased engagement, and improved language stimulation, effects that were more pronounced in high-poverty classrooms and early career teachers. In turn, early childhood students with MTP teachers made greater gains in early literacy tests, showed greater self control and lower levels of problem behavior, and demonstrated higher levels of expressive language. Older students also showed significant gains on state standardized tests.

Why does coaching like MTP work? One idea is that MTP engages teachers in building knowledge and skills in detecting effective teacher-student interaction by analyzing video of their own practice. The other is that simply having a supportive relationship with a coach boosts a teacher’s emotional or relational resilience, so they’re refreshed and ready to return to the classroom. In a study of approximately 400 teachers, researchers found that both are important. By asking challenging questions, coaches got teachers to reflect and respond. Those reflections build educators’ CLASS knowledge, which, in turn, lead to increased CLASS scores. Independent of this knowledge, though, the quality of the relationship between coach and teacher also affects CLASS scores.

What’s next?

As Dr. Pianta shared, the research base for CLASS has continued to grow, but several important areas remain untapped. For one, family child care programs were not represented in the presented research. Generally, there has also been much less research done on very young children in infant or toddler care. This gap is not because it’s unimportant - quite the contrary - but because the home-based programs and informal care that are often used by families of infants and toddlers are not as centrally organized as the more-formal preschool programs that are more often studied. Students with disabilities are another group often placed at risk, but that term is so wide-ranging that the existing research cannot neatly show what factors of the CLASS are most critical. However, given what we know about CLASS’s importance for vulnerable children, examining these and other under-studied areas are vital next steps.

Teachstone is excited that CLASS continues to be used by practitioners and researchers alike. Learn more about the research that backs up CLASS in our outcomes paper. Ready to bridge research to practice? Let’s chat.