Measuring Classroom Quality Through a Dual Language Learner Lens

A new tool offers key insights on how to support DLLs’ cultural and linguistic needs in early childhood classrooms.
Blog Post
Feb. 10, 2021

Calls for universal, high-quality early childhood education programs have been growing at state and local levels, and with the Biden administration in support of making pre-K accessible for three-and four-year-olds across the country, it seems like it may actually be within reach. However, as our team has written before, various data gaps in the early education space have hindered the field’s ability to measure whether early childhood programs are implementing high-quality education opportunities, especially as it relates to dual language learners (DLLs).

At the system level, quality rating and improvement systems (QRIS) have proliferated the way states define and support high-quality early childhood education within child care, Head Start, and other pre-K settings. In terms of evaluating the general quality of preschool programs, the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) is often used to measure the quality of teaching by focusing on teacher-student interactions, and the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale - Revised (ECERS-R) measures the quality of the overall environment created in terms of space, materials, and interactions. Though neither ECERS-R nor CLASS are intended to provide a single measure of program quality, they are often regarded as universally applicable and are widely used to evaluate programs. That being said, their ability to adequately gauge whether classroom settings are meeting the social, cognitive, and linguistic development needs of DLLs has been called into question leaving a void in the availability of tools that are appropriate for DLLs.

The Classroom Assessment for Support of Bilingual Emergent Acquisition (CASEBA) was created to supplement general measures of quality by evaluating the quality and quantity of meaningful home language instruction provided to DLLs in pre-K classrooms. Incorporating this additional lens into how early childhood programs are evaluated is important given that more than 50 percent of DLLs are concentrated in these early years (0-4). Notably, the CASEBA is the only available tool for examining instructional practices that support DLLs’ home language and English language acquisition in early education settings. The goal is to provide a picture of how teachers are creating learning environments supportive of both language and culture. That’s according to a recent study conducted by Alexandra Figueras-Daniel from the Straus Center for Young Children & Families at Bank Street College of Education and Zijia Li from the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University that sought to test whether CASEBA does, in fact, capture classroom quality measures specific to DLLs’ needs that other tools are not designed to measure. The researchers were also interested in examining how classroom staffing configurations impact the quality of the learning environment for DLLs.

The researchers applied the CASEBA to 376 three-and four-year-olds enrolled in a state-funded pre-K program and evaluated 82 classrooms—less than half of classrooms (33) were led by a Spanish-speaking teacher and the majority (59) had Spanish-speaking teaching assistants. Three staffing configurations were compared: 1) Spanish-speaking lead teacher with English-speaking teacher assistant; 2) English-speaking lead teacher with Spanish speaking teacher assistant; and 3) Spanish-speaking lead teacher and teacher assistant. The classrooms were assessed according to CASEBA’s five factors of classroom quality (Figure 1).

Figure 1.

Classroom Quality Inputs Evaluated by CASEBA

Source: Figueras-Daniel, Alexandra, and Zijia Li. “Evidence of Support for Dual Language Learners in a Study of Bilingual Staffing Patterns Using the Classroom Assessment of Supports for Emergent Bilingual Acquisition (CASEBA).” 2020.

The study revealed that the CASEBA did in fact capture components critical to DLLs’ linguistic and literacy development that were missed by assessment tools that claim to have global application (in this case the ECERS-R). CASEBA does this by honing in on classroom components that measure teachers’ deliberate use and development of DLLs’ home language as well as specific supports offered to grow their English language acquisition. Previous tools that have been regarded as good for ‘all children’ have not necessarily evaluated these conditions from the perspective of DLLs. After all, you cannot measure something you are not looking for. By evaluating classrooms through a domain-specific lens, the use of CASEBA in the current study uncovered that supports for DLLs were more pronounced in classrooms where the lead teacher spoke Spanish, and that classroom quality improved further when the assistant teacher also spoke Spanish.

When researchers looked at how different teacher groups performed on specific CASEBA items, they found that classrooms with English speaking lead teachers and Spanish speaking teaching assistants scored significantly lower in terms of providing high-quality supports to DLLs than staffing configurations where both teachers spoke Spanish. Classroom quality components most affected by staff’s language dominance included the extent to which lead and assistant teachers used students’ home language for instructional purposes as well as in high-quality talk, staff’s ability to provide on-going development of students’ home language, their use of high-quality talk in English, and their ability to provide individual interactions to support DLLs’ English language acquisition. Interestingly enough, different lead/assistant teacher language configurations were not found to have a different impact on the ability to foster DLLs’ English language development in the classroom. This signals that special attention must be given to how all teachers, bilingual or not, are targeting DLLs’ English language development needs in very intentional ways.

The study adds an important layer to the classroom quality conversation that is often missing: to what extent are DLLs’ linguistic, cognitive, and social development needs being addressed in early education classrooms, and how can we make these environments more conducive to their success? The evaluation criteria included in the CASEBA incorporates existing research that shows DLLs’ linguistic and academic development is best supported by programs that use their home language as a launching point for their English language acquisition. To do this, however, you must have a multilingual teacher workforce. That being said, the researchers caution that:

“while teacher language and cultural match can be critical, they are not a substitute for well-planned and intentional interactions backed by knowledge about how DLLs learn a second language and practices that promote both languages well.”

Recent estimates place the number of DLLs ages 0-4 around 6.4 million nationwide, representing roughly 32 percent of the total 0-4 population. However, as we’ve noted before, there is a disconnect between the language diversity of DLLs and the teachers being trained to educate them. In this study alone, classrooms led by English-speaking teachers outnumbered the other teacher configurations. At the same time, however, the study showed that Spanish-speaking lead and assistant teachers undoubtedly have a positive impact on DLLs’ quality of education. Like tools that came before it, lessons learned using the CASEBA should be inserted into conversations about how to ensure early education programs are meeting the needs of DLLs. In doing so, advocates will be able to provide a more holistic view of classroom and program quality which can prove useful in targeting resources and promoting policies to enhance the professional development of early educators who work with DLLs.

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