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Lead from the Start: research finding: "what teachers do with kids" matters

Thursday, May 15, 2008

research finding: "what teachers do with kids" matters

I love when education research confirms what is obvious to teachers, as an Education Week article on preschool education did this week. I am glad that we can finally "know" that "Pupil-Teacher Relationship (is) Crucial in Preschool Learning". In the article of the same name Linda Jacobson covered a report that compared National Institute for Early Education Research(NIEER) benchmarks for preschool education with findings of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), an instrument designed by Dr. Bob Pianta of the University of Virginia.

Using a sample of more than 2,400 4-year-olds in 671 pre-K classrooms in 11 states, researchers at the University of Virginia found that minimum standards for classrooms—including teachers’ field of study, their level of education, and the teacher-to-child ratio—were not associated with children’s academic, language, and social development.

Instead, academic and language skills were stronger when children received greater instructional support, such as feedback on their ideas and encouragement to think in more complex ways. And children’s social skills were more advanced when teachers showed more positive emotions and were sensitive to children’s needs.

This finding was not new to me. It was one of the first things I learned when I served on a committee for Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine's Start Strong Council. Dr. Pianta was on several of the committees and he constantly pushed for the grounding of our recommendations in “what teachers do with kids” as opposed to simple policy fixes like teacher certification and training. His position was that the most credentialed teacher in the world can't help kids learn if kids don't feel safe, nurtured, and valued by that teacher. At the same time, a grandmother with minimal education can provide the foundation for learning if she helps the child explore the world and learn from their experiences while feeling safe, nurtured, and valued.

One of the things I really liked about Pianta in those committee meetings was that he was always quick to frame his research so that policy makers didn't take it out of context as he does in the article here:

“If one were to rest the whole system on those structural indicators that people tend to talk about, you could vastly overestimate the level of quality that is in the system,” said Robert C. Pianta.

Mr. Pianta stressed, however, that the study does not imply that those “elements of program infrastructure” are not important. Instead, both such elements and the supportive qualities identified are needed, he said.

Two more findings from research using Pianta's CLASS tool are:
Teachers who give both instructional and emotional support can raise achievement among 1st graders who are considered at risk for school failure because of such factors as poverty and low maternal education levels.

For teachers of children displaying behavioral and social difficulties: When teachers were warm, sensitive, and positive, the children performed at levels almost identical to those of children without a history of behavior problems.
Pianta's work is changing the way policy makers think about education and his CLASS has provided a tool for evaluating classroom environments that could change the way we think about accountability.

Finally, Pianta would never extend his research reasoning beyond looking at the findings of the research tool, that is my job as a preschool teacher and budding researcher.

So I'll ask the question, "What can we learn from preschool classrooms about teaching and learning?" The argument in Pre-K circles is always that we are supposed to get kids ready for school, that is why we make students conform to schooling's norms like testing. But, maybe if schools acted a little more humanely we wouldn't have to get kids ready for them. Maybe they should look a little more like preschool classrooms where relationships and supporting learning are part of the "curriculum".

What if teachers were held accountable for building good relationships with kids instead of test scores? -- Realizing that those relationships are what make learning possible. What would education look like in a world like that where “what teachers do with kids” is what really matters? Can we imagine what it would look like?

"Photo used with permission of Pre-K Now. All rights reserved." image from:


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