The study of 24,000 kindergarteners, carried out by Yyannú Cruz-Aguayo of the Inter-American Development Bank and colleagues, found that quality of teaching has a substantial impact on how well children do.
Teachers themselves were assessed for factors such as their years of experience, IQ and personality. Then the teachers were filmed for a full day, and their teaching was scored according to a previously developed tool, CLASS (Classroom Assessment Scoring System), that measures “responsive teaching”—emotional support to the children, classroom organization, and instructional support.
At the end of the year, the children were tested not just on the traditional math and language skills but also on “executive function” skills—including their ability to suppress impulsive behavior and resist temptations, to hold and use information in their minds for short periods of time, to shift attention between competing tasks or rules, and to maintain attention despite distractions.
These executive function tests are important because they determine how well a child functions in class. Children with high levels of executive function can concentrate and make good use of learning opportunities. Children with low levels of executive function show low self-control, disruptive behavior and inability to sit still and pay attention. Other research has shown that a child’s executive function skills at this age are correlated with later success in life—school achievement, good health, higher income, and less involvement in criminal activity.
The researchers found that teachers varied considerably in the quality of their teaching and that this variation had a substantial impact on all the skills the children were tested for: math, language and executive function.
Previous research has shown that the impact of quality of teaching on test scores in math and language tails off after a while. Conversely, teaching quality has been correlated with achievement later in life. Could the link be children’s executive function, which is both affected by teaching quality and predicts later success in life?
Other than teaching quality, the only characteristic of individual teachers that made a significant difference to children was the teachers’ years of experience. Measures of teacher IQ and personality were not linked to improved children’s tests scores.
The researchers also looked at how parents responded to teaching quality. They measured how the parents rated the quality of teaching the children received. They also measured the parents’ own contribution to the children’s learning (e.g., availability of books, pencils and toys) and parents’ behaviors (e.g., reading to, singing to or playing with their children).
They found that parents can generally tell the difference between better and worse teaching, but they don’t significantly change their behaviors to compensate for poor teaching or build on good teaching.
Turning to policy implications, the researchers say that their study makes the case for paying attention to teacher effectiveness when designing educational programs, though quality may may be difficult to measure. The researchers also recommend developing programs to improve teachers’ functioning in the classroom.
Araujo MC, Carneiro P, Cruz-Aguayo Y & Schady N, Teacher Quality and Learning Outcomes in Kindergarten, Quarterly Journal of Economic Affairs, 2016