Measures that parents use to assess school quality are not helpful

Photo: Seattle Parks. Creative Commons.

A review of research has found that widely used measures of school quality don’t predict children’s outcomes well.

We have strong evidence that, for low-income children in particular, attending preschool improves children’s language, literacy and math skills and makes them better prepared for school.

But does the quality of preschools matter? A review of eight large studies looked at the difference that higher quality of publicly funded preschool makes to school readiness and cognitive skills. The main finding is that children’s language and literacy skills are greater if they have receive care in higher-quality settings (but only once the quality is above a certain threshold). But higher quality doesn’t predict better math or social skills.

Interestingly, however, the kind of measure used to capture quality affected the results. The more specific the measures — zeroing in on the content, like early language stimulation or early math stimulation—the better the measure correlated with better developmental progress by children.

Many of the measures available for parents or policymakers to use are based on global scores across a wide range of aspects of quality, including such things as the organization of the physical space and the organization of routines during the day – and these global measures are not very good at predicting how well children will do.

Yet these quality measures are used by parents, and they define targets for programme managers and even those making policy for children.

The evidence suggests we should move beyond such global indicators and focus on particular aspects of preschool education programmes that are more strongly related to specific outcomes for children.

For example, in Boston, two specific programmes were introduced into the curriculum – Opening the World of Learning, which focused on reading, and Building Blocks, which focused on math. When accompanied by changes in teacher behavior, these interventions yielded good results.

Similarly programmes that specifically target social-emotional learning achieve good results in reducing children’s emotional distress and behavior problems and increasing prosocial behavior. According to the research review’s authors:

The take-home message is that if we want preschool to promote certain skills and competencies more effectively in children, we have to implement classroom practices that target these skills in explicit and intentional ways. Simply providing children with safe, stimulating, and nurturing environments, as indexed by global quality indicators … , may produce modest gains in school readiness, but the largest gains will be realized in classrooms where teachers use evidence-based practices to target specific skills and competencies underlying school and life success.

Votruba-Drzal E & Miller P, Reflections on quality and dosage of preschool and children’s development, Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 2016