Teacher-student interactions are the best measure of early education quality

We need to ensure that students encounter effective teacher-student interactions from prekindergarten through the elementary years.

What is quality in early education classrooms, and how can we make sure that more children—especially those from low-income families—experience it? Our own and others’ research shows that classroom interactions between teachers and their students provide the strongest indicators of quality.

In the past two decades, the United States has made an unprecedented public investment in early education. As a result, more young children attend pre-kindergarten than ever before. Yet the achievement gap between low- and middle-income children has hardly budged. A big part of the problem is that preschool programs—not to mention early elementary classrooms—vary widely in quality. Overall, they aren’t intensive enough in the quality they provide. The strongest preschool programs do significantly reduce achievement gaps. However, there are too few examples of such superior programs and far too many examples of programs with modest effects that wane as children grow older.

To fulfil pre-kindergarten’s promise of narrowing persistent achievement gaps, we need to strengthen teachers’ skills to interact with their students more effectively. We also need to ensure that students encounter such interactions throughout their journey from pre-kindergarten through the early elementary years.

Diffuse or Indirect Measures of Quality

Preschool program quality is often measured by structural qualities— such as length of the school day, class size, and staff qualifications. These features are certainly important. Research has shown, for example, that class sizes above 20 are associated with poorer outcomes for children. We also know that children enrolled in full-day preschool programs learn more than those enrolled in shorter programs.

“The evidence suggests that it’s time to shift our attention to children’s and teachers’ everyday experiences in classrooms, and to put those experiences at the core of what we mean by quality in early education.”

Yet full-day programs with small class sizes and well-qualified staff don’t guarantee positive outcomes for children. Even in classrooms that meet all of those structural standards, teacher-student interaction is highly variable and low-quality, less-stimulating instruction is common, according to observational studies of programs from preschool to third grade.

Quality is also commonly measured by observing assorted features of the classroom environment, ranging from playground equipment to hygiene and interactions among staff, children, and parents. In the U.S., the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale–Revised Edition (ECERS–R), which includes dozens of such classroom features, is a standard measure of preschool quality. Past research has shown that higher ECERS–R scores are modestly associated with better outcomes for children.

Yet, that association has weakened as programs have invested and improved in the aspects of quality defined by ECERS–R. There is very little evidence of an association between overall ECERS–R scores and children’s learning outcomes, according to recent research. However, some elements of quality measured by ECERS–R do predict children’s outcomes—those related to teacher-student interactions, report latest studies.

Finally, most U.S. states also rate preschool programs using aggregate indexes known as quality rating and improvement systems (QRIS). These combine various quality indicators to create a composite score, usually represented by some number of “stars”. Here again, research does not support the underlying assumption that programs with high QRIS ratings will produce better outcomes for children.

teacher class
Photo: Ilmicrofono Oggiono. Creative Commons.

Interactions show unique effects on learning and development

Some large-scale, longitudinal, studies, including some randomized controlled experiments, have examined the various indicators of quality (that is, structural elements, features of the physical environment, and interactions with teachers and peers). These studies have repeatedly shown that children’s interactions with teachers have unique and positive associations with learning gains.

For example, children whose classrooms were more emotionally supportive and better managed demonstrated stronger social skills and fewer behavior problems the next year, according to a recent longitudinal study of more than 1,000 children in rural prekindergarten and kindergarten programs. Another showed that interactions with teachers that stimulate cognition and language skills improved children’s academic achievement.

Early experiences with teachers appear to have a lasting influence. In another longitudinal study, children who experienced more responsive teaching in early childhood demonstrated better academic achievement and fewer behaviorl problems into their teenage years.

The evidence supports defining quality in terms of children’s classroom interactions with teachers rather than as an amalgamation of many types of features. If we want to boost quality by improving these interactions, where should we look? Three sets of processes embedded in teacher-student interactions seem especially important: children’s individual interactions with teachers; the content of instructional interactions; teachers’ own capacities.

Children’s individual interactions with teachers: Children in the same classroom approach learning differently, and their individual attitudes predict how well they’ll adjust to school. Young children who display positive emotions toward teachers tend to have better academic and social outcomes, and children’s engagement in classroom tasks and activities forecasts greater achievement. Researchers are working to understand better how teachers’ interactions can unlock and build upon children’s individual characteristics and behaviors to promote their success.

Content of instructional interactions: Well-organized instructional content can help teachers interact more effectively with their students, because a curriculum’s instructional activities can shape their teaching. For example, problem- or project-based activities—as opposed to rote learning—help teachers develop children’s thinking and analytical skills. This type of instruction can occur not only in traditional academic areas but also when teaching social, emotional, and self-regulatory skills directly.

Teacher capacities: Certain personal capacities can help teachers interact with children. Two capacities have shown particular promise for increasing the quality of classroom interactions: teachers’ ability to observe children’s cues and teachers’ regulation of their own stress and emotion. A better understanding of these capacities could guide teacher preparation and professional development.

What we know about quality

What do we know about quality as defined in terms of children’s direct experiences with teachers in the classroom?

We know that effective interactions with a teacher are unevenly distributed and difficult to produce at scale. Effective teacher-child interactions and strong, developmentally-aligned curricula are also not as readily available to low-income children as they are to higher-income children. We know that teachers’ capacities to interact effectively with young children, in social and instructional forms, are tied to their own mental health and social supports. It’s also clear that targeted and sustained professional development can significantly and systematically improve teachers’ interactions with children and their abilities to carry out educational activities.

Thus far, efforts to improve quality for all children, from pre-kindergarten through third grade, have been ineffectual at best. The evidence suggests that it’s time to shift our attention to children’s and teachers’ everyday experiences in classrooms, and to put those experiences at the core of what we mean by quality in early education.

Policy Implications

Government should enact evaluation and improvement policies for early education programs and teacher preparation programs that more directly ensure that children are exposed to classroom experiences that foster learning and development.

Practical Implications

Teachers should engage more actively and intentionally with children through interactions that stimulate learning and support positive social development.

Robert Pianta

Robert Pianta

Dean of the University of Virginia Curry School of Education, Novartis Professor of Education, founding director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning, Professor of Psychology, and former Director of the National Center for Research in Early Childhood Education, USA.

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Jason Downer

Jason Downer

Associate Professor of Education, Director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning, and Program Area Director for Clinical and School Psychology at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education, USA.

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Bridget Hamre

Bridget Hamre

Research Associate Professor and Associate Director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education, USA.

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