May 9, 2019
As a former early educator, I want to emphasize that learning environments matter. For young children, the environment is the structure through which learning comes alive. Setting up my pre-K and kindergarten classrooms was a task that I simultaneously relished and treated with great thought and respect. I learned how to successfully accomplish this task in my undergraduate early childhood education program, where I developed knowledge and competencies to create effective early learning environments.
A recent American Education Research Association (AERA) meta-analysis synthesized the abundance of research examining the relationship between teachers’ academic backgrounds and the quality of the early learning environments they create. Forty-five studies were selected, each conducted in a child care center between 1980-2015, and each comparing educators with varying educational attainment. Studies used ITERS or ECERS as the Environmental Rating Scales (ERS) to measure quality. The Infant and Toddler Environment Rating Scale (ITERS) and the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS) were the measures of classroom quality which guided my pre-service learning as well.
The seven ITERS and ECERS indicators that researchers analyzed were space and furnishings, personal care routines (i.e. hand washing and diapering), language and reasoning (i.e. formal and informal communication), activities (i.e. mathematics, fine motor, dramatic play), interaction (i.e. supervision and discipline), program structure (i.e. scheduling and accommodations for students with special needs), and parent engagement. Indicators related to the quality of teachers’ instruction and students’ social-emotional support, such as activities, language-reasoning, and interactions, relate closely to the widely used Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS).
All seven quality outcomes correlated positively with educator’s academic background, though teachers’ degrees (or lack thereof) had the least impact on space and furnishings and personal care routines. Both of these indicators are more related to structural quality than process quality, and therefore less likely to be predictive of children’s learning outcomes than the other five indicators. On the whole, researchers found the positive correlation they were seeking.
According to the study, “Overall, the education level of the teachers or caregivers is positively correlated with overall ECEC [early childhood education and care] quality measured by ERS.” In other words, teachers’ educational attainment has a positive effect on the quality of their early education classroom. The statistical significance connecting early learning environments and teacher’s educational backgrounds was present, but weak.
When preservice teachers learn techniques that promote children’s learning, they can implement this valuable knowledge in their classrooms. At a recent New America event, pre-K teacher Danny described how he and around 30 colleagues at his center became certified CLASS observers. As he explained, “That kind of mentality of supporting us and giving us the tools to be able to create a quality environment and be able to be effective with the kids, I feel like, is something that not only comes from somebody’s intention of having a high quality center but also their intention of being effective for the kids.” Having familiarity with quality measures like ECERS and CLASS empowers early educators to elevate their instruction and development of their classroom environment.
And though the meta-analysis is seemingly straight-forward, the study lacks scrutiny of the higher education environments that produce teachers. Higher education programs vary greatly in quality and practicality, as explored by experts in New America’s popular blog series, Moving Beyond False Choices for Early Childhood Educators. Not all teacher preparation programs place import on classroom environments, like mine did, nor do universities typically provide you with the tiny furniture and multicultural children’s literature that quality classroom environments require—despite the exorbitant money spent on degrees.
If the field agrees that classroom environments and teacher-child interactions matter, then early learning environments should be a priority in all early and elementary education teacher preparation programs. Teachers should receive training in environmental quality measures such as ECERS and CLASS, to use as tools for collaboration with colleagues and self-assessment. Additionally, funding should be made available for teachers to fill their classrooms and schools with the recommended materials that promote children’s learning, such as musical instruments, a variety of art media, and safe playgrounds. As more early childhood educators are encouraged to earn degrees, this AERA study confirms that knowledge and competencies gained in high-quality teacher preparation programs will likely be reflected in student learning environments, just as they were in mine.