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A new study published this month in the journal Child Development, found that eight key teacher actions can make the difference between a mediocre preschool classroom and an excellent one.
A team of Vanderbilt University researchers spent two years gathering the data used to prove that these actions worked. Dale Farran, the head researcher, says the project was a direct result of the disappointing results of her previous research, a multi-year study published in 2015, which showed that Tennessee’s state preschool program had no effect or in some cases a negative effect on participants by the time they reached third grade.
“I got obsessed these past three years with ‘how do we make it better?’” said Farran, the associate director of Vanderbilt’s Peabody Research Center. “It wasn’t acceptable to me to just say, ‘We found these outcomes.’ Do you just say ‘we found these outcomes’ or do you roll up your sleeves and try to do something about it?”
Farran decided the only ethical answer was to do something about it, so she said she was thrilled when the superintendent of Nashville Public Schools approached her a few months after her initial report and asked for help improving Nashville’s program.
Researchers partnered with the principals, teacher coaches and teachers in three different Nashville early learning centers. They collected data on teacher actions and student achievement across 26 preschool classrooms. All of the participating teachers were certified in early education, held bachelor’s degrees and were paid on par with K-12 teachers. Each classroom also had an assistant. There were a maximum of 20 students per classroom. The study ran for two years, from 2014 to 2016, and covered a total of 840 children.
The partnership, at times, was fraught. Not all of the teachers were excited about the multiple observations and feedback sessions with researchers, Farran said. She said that she and her fellow researchers came to realize that teachers faced competing demands on their time, which made it hard to take in all of the data being foisted on them. To address that issue, the research team narrowed its focus on the eight classroom actions they found had the largest effect on student success.
Here’s the list, dubbed “The Magic 8” by the principals of the three Early Learning Centers they studied:
- Reduce time spent in transition. Time moving from one activity to another is time when children aren’t learning or engaged, which also increases the likelihood of negative behaviors.
- Improve level of instruction. Asking children open-ended, inferential questions and asking them to reflect on what they’ve learned or make predictions based on what they know improves student retention of new material and better prepares them for kindergarten.
- Create a positive climate. Using positive language to reinforce desired behavior rather than disapproving of specific student actions has a positive effect on children’s ability to self-regulate.
- Increase time teachers listen to children. Children whose teachers spent significant time listening to them showed a stronger grasp of math concepts, letters and sight words. Children who spoke more frequently also had stronger self-regulation and vocabulary skills.
- Plan sequential activities. When children participated in activities that followed a logical order, like completing a puzzle or writing a message, they engaged in higher level thinking, which improved their problem-solving skills.
- Promote cooperative interactions between children. Children who worked often with peers were more involved in classroom activities, had better language skills, and were better at self-regulation.
- Foster high levels of child involvement. Children are better at reading comprehension, vocabulary and math when they are actively involved in an activity, like when a teacher asks them to answer questions or make predictions about the book she’s reading.
- Provide math opportunities. Children who take part in multi-part math problems and discuss math concepts are better prepared for kindergarten and early math success, which is a strong predictor of late elementary school achievement.
Farran remains committed to furthering the practical application of these eight concepts. In addition to using the list to design a more streamlined teacher feedback and education system at the three early learning centers, these eight concepts have now been adopted by the City of Nashville as part of their High-quality Start for all Plan, championed by Nashville Mayor Megan Barry.
Barry’s plan calls for program improvement first and expansion to universal access second, a position Farran endorses. Expanding access without improving quality could do more harm than good, she said. “Our goal right now for 4-year-olds should be to get them interested and engaged in learning,” she said,” and to remember they’re only four.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about early education. Sign up for our newsletter.