Closing the Gap: What Effective Teaching Can Do in the Early Years

Blog Post
Feb. 11, 2016
Sometimes you walk into a classroom and you can just feel it. There is a palpable, infectious energy. As a former teacher and school administrator, I used to love walking into these classrooms (or experiencing this in my own classroom). Students are engaged and excited by the feeling of knowledge rushing into their brains. The teacher is moving around like their hair's on firedirecting learning, fielding questions, fighting to maintain that magical momentum. It’s clear to even an untrained eye that this is good teaching.

It should come as no surprise that good teachers are critical for a child’s development, especially during the earliest, most formative years. To be sure, good teaching can “look” many different ways, and there is no doubt it is important at every grade level and for every child. But, a new study from the Center for American Progress (CAP) highlights the discrepancies in access to quality teaching across the pre-K through third grade spectrum, particularly for children from low-income backgrounds.

What is quality teaching in the early grades? The study from CAP defines key elements as supportive and engaging interactions between children and teachers; developmentally appropriate instruction (teachers modeling ideal behavior toward others, for example); and, stimulating classroom activities—each element highly dependent on the teacher in the classroom. High quality teaching is non-negotiable for educational success, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Research has found students—especially those from low-income households—are most likely to succeed in classroom environments with an effective teacher, and are better prepared for both kindergarten and a long-term trajectory of educational success. While this is not a surprising finding, unfortunately, data indicate the students who need quality teaching the most are those least likely to have access to it.

Among the elements of strong teaching in early education, supportive and positive teacher-child interactions are a crucial measure of quality, the CAP study notes, “predictive of gains in children’s literacy, language acquisition and social development.” Given the powerful potential of these interactions, some districts have utilized observation tools, such as the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), to assess teachers on this indicator. However, these tools are often lengthy, time-consuming, and require reliability training for observers, leading few schools to direct limited time and resources toward conducting them.

In the absence of measured data, study authors Rachel Herzfeldt-Kamprath and Rebecca Ullrich used three characteristics of teachers and schools as proxies for assessing the quality of teacher-child interactions: teacher qualifications; attitudes about teaching; and the teaching environment, including school characteristics and teacher compensation. They argue teachers that are well-equipped (highly educated and continually developed by their school) and better compensated will provide higher quality learning environments. Though these claims may seem self-evident, both the education qualifications and compensation of early childhood educators present a wide array of issues.

While nearly 100% of K-3 educators holds a bachelor’s degree or higher, this is true of only 54% of their pre-K colleagues. Pre-K education qualifications vary even further when broken down into privately-run child care centers versus public schools, where teachers in the latter environments are more often degree holders. A concern largely unaddressed by the CAP study is that even among teachers who hold a bachelor’s degree overall effectiveness may vary. Research suggests the quality and content of teacher preparation programs matters greatly in predicting academic successes of future students, raising concerns about the variation in teacher preparation program quality around the country. The study authors acknowledge that specialized education (e.g., having a degree in child development or reading instruction) is linked with more effective teaching, but questions around variations in teacher preparation remain.

Compensation is also a challenging area as it relates to teacher effectiveness. Pay differentials between pre-K educators and K-3 teachers vary significantly, with pre-K educators averaging $32,040 annually, while elementary teachers take home $56,830, according to CAP. Issues of compensation are particularly challenging in non-public pre-K settings, as described in a report from UC Berkeley describing the unlivable wages of private early childhood workers over the past quarter century. The interrelated consequences of decreased teacher compensation are that lower paid teachers tend to have less relevant educational qualifications, work in lower-performing environments, have less professional development support, are less satisfied with their work, and are overall less effective classroom leaders.

Herzfeldt-Kamprath and Ullrich find significant gaps in teacher effectiveness between pre-K and K-3 educators, as well as varied access to quality teachers based on race and family income. CAP concludes that as a result of the discrepancies in educational qualifications and teacher pay, pre-K children are much less likely to have an effective prekindergarten teacher than for their years in kindergarten through third grade, leading many children to begin their educational careers at a weakened starting point. Black, low-income children are least likely to have access to high-quality teachers at any point in their education.

The high variability in the quality of teachers between pre-K and K-3 has additionally led to issues of discontinuity of content across the earliest, most formative years, with the most adverse effects impacting  children from low-income backgrounds. This is not new information. In 2009, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan argued in a speech to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, “Now if we are to prevent the achievement gap and develop a cradle-to-career educational pipeline, early learning programs are going to have to be better integrated with the K-12 system.” Little has changed in support of a stronger P-12 spectrum in the seven years since this speech was given, although the NAEYC has worked more recently to better define and elevate the teaching profession through its advocacy for universal teaching requirements in early childhood education.

In general, there remains a huge gap in access to any pre-K prior to kindergarten for low- versus high-income children. But, gaps in opportunity and achievement for children begin even sooner—as early as nine months old, well before children enter either pre-K or kindergarten. Herzfeldt-Kamprath and Ullrich note that while cognitive skills developed during this early period of development may diminish, even for children who attend pre-K, the critical, socio-emotional skills learned in the early years are sustained through future grades. However—and this is key—effective teaching must exist both in pre-K and the following early elementary years for these skills to both develop and continue. Something that’s hard to come by for for many children in the U.S.

Disadvantaged children are systematically starting their educational trajectories on weak, uneven footing compared to higher-income peers. In order for the crucial, developmental gains made in pre-K to be accessed and sustained for all children, alignment across the preK-3rd spectrum in all areasbut particularly in teacher qualityis essential. If we are serious about closing the achievement gap and providing a solid foundation for all children, steps should be taken to ensure quality teachers are available and well-supported beginning in all pre-K programs across the country. Increasing teacher pay (particularly for pre-K and early childhood teachers), establishing universal competencies and educational qualifications aligned to classroom effectiveness, and strengthening ongoing teacher support and professional development programs would all be positive steps in that direction."