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Prioritizing Quality in Early Learning: Does High Quality Come with Too-High A Price Tag?

24 Feb 2016 by Jennifer Park

A recent report from the Center for American Progress (CAP), Examining Teacher Effectiveness Between Preschool and Third Grade, examined inequities between children from poor and higher income families on key features of programs, but may have inadvertently confounded the field’s understanding of the forms of program quality that are structural in nature (e.g., teacher credentials) and those that reflect the actual classroom processes (e.g., teacher-student interactions) that more directly contribute to student learning. The CAP report argues that because process measures require a substantial amount of human capital to administer, this may outweigh the value of their use at scale.

In childcare and education, “quality” has been regulated largely through easily quantifiable structural requirements such as class size, ratio, teacher certificates and degrees, and curriculum, yet little evidence exists that these attributes lead to academic gains for students. Rather, research consistently suggests that students’ experiences in classrooms, such as the nature and quality of teacher-student interactions, contribute to improved student academic achievement and social skill development and as such, may be a better indicator of quality than structural features.

The CAP report rightly emphasizes that it is important that the debate on quality focus on the use of measures more effectively and inexpensively, to improve the quality of teaching and child outcomes.  When considering all the evidence—accounting for cost, scalability, and evidence for impact on children—we believe the report comes up short in suggesting that structural proxies of quality can effectively inform policy in a way that drives effective approaches to education.

 

Interactions Matter

There is little debate about the scientific merits of process measures of classroom quality.  As just one example, the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), has more than two decades of large-scale research validating the tool and more than 100 peer reviewed publications demonstrating its validity for predicting gains in student learning and development. The use of the CLASS tool continues to grow at rapid rates in research, policy, and practice and it has become a standard measure in early childhood large-scale research and program evaluation.

The Office of Head Start selected the CLASS as a measure for observing teacher-student interaction, for use in its Designation Renewal System, and CLASS is present in Quality Rating Improvement Systems in 18 states. These systems for measuring and improving quality of early education programs have focused attention on the need for supports for teachers to improve their interactions. In several instances, when such supports are highly focused on teachers’ classroom interactions with children, we see evidence of increases in CLASS, and most importantly, improving developmental and academic outcomes for children.

Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation, a 2015 publication from The National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine, provides a framework of factors that contribute to quality professional practice and ultimately to improving child outcomes. This framework clearly illustrates the need for science to define professional learning supports, policies, professional competencies, teacher wellbeing, environmental factors, and effective teacher interactions through improved outcomes for children. Recent policy recommendations from the Ounce of Prevention, underscoring the importance of effective interactions, highlight the opportunity in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) for states to “focus on instructional quality” in their K-3 systems, stating that, for young children, “the quality of their interactions with teachers” is what matters most.

 

Why Are Interactions so Important? 

Effective interactions between teachers and students are essential for promoting long-term student success. The CLASS measures interactions between and among teachers and students in classrooms, not the presence of materials, the physical environment or safety, or the adoption of a specific curriculum. The focus is on what teachers do with the materials they have and on the interactions the teachers have with the students. One strength of the CLASS is that it is curriculum neutral; it enables a common language and lens to be applied to teachers’ behavior with children across many areas of development.  CLASS also supports a common framework for effective teaching from birth through secondary programming.

 

Committing to Learners

The Center for American Progress report claimed that the cost of using the CLASS (and presumably other measures used to observe teacher effectiveness) is prohibitively high, creating a barrier to large-scale implementation. On that basis, the report recommends a practical focus selecting quality measures, relying on teacher qualifications, attitudes about teaching, and the teaching environment (neighborhood safety, poverty density, and teacher compensation). The report concludes that teachers, particularly those serving children from lower-income and ethnic minority families, need support to be effective, a point of great importance. But simplifying quality measures to a few, easily collected teacher characteristics does not drive improvements for learners; if they did then why are we so dissatisfied with k-12 achievement outcomes? That system meets all the structural benchmarks for quality. 

The CLASS provides an evidence-based approach to identifying key elements of educational experience that actually produce learning: effective interactions. More powerfully, CLASS links to professional development that increases how teachers work effectively with students.

 

Investing in Quality

There are many large-scale implementations of CLASS across the globe, with more than 35,000 professionals trained to reliability and more than 2,000 affiliate trainers. Every year another 10,000 observers are trained to see and describe effective teaching in a consistent and valid manner. And every reliable observer supports several teachers, conducting observations or providing coaching support.

So is CLASS too costly and burdensome to scale? Professionals can get trained on the CLASS for *$850 and programs can invest in affiliate training for *$4500 to support their entire program by training additional observers and coaches to use the tool reliably. If a CLASS observer supports 20-25 teachers annually, that cost translates to less than $40 per teacher. If each teacher supports 10-20 students, that cost then translates to less than $3 per student annually. That is less than the annual cost of crayons or toothpaste annually, yet is linked to positive outcomes for students. The value of the CLASS isn’t to produce a score, but to rather improve the effectiveness of teachers.

Conversely, the average cost of tuition alone for an associate’s degree is $6,870 and $18,820 for a bachelor’s degree at public institutions. The argument isn’t CLASS or degrees, but how to best support teachers in the immediate and in the long term. How do we drive evidence-based practices into teacher career pathways, including degree programs, so that students benefit in the present and we build a workforce of well-qualified and well-supported educators for our future? We believe it’s a better bet, for the future, to invest in quality anchored in the interactions children experience directly with their teachers, and which in turn help teachers be and feel more effective as professionals.

*Pricing accurate as of February 2016.

 

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