Investing in High Quality Preschool: Q&A with Dr. Robert C. Pianta

From the President’s State of the Union Address to Nobel laureate’s analyses of cost effectiveness, there is a growing chorus of calls for investment in early childhood. What do donors who want to help need to know in order to achieve the impact they seek? Our soon-to-be-released toolkit, Invest in a Strong Start for Children, will provide answers to that question, but as a sneak preview, we offer the following interview with Dr. Robert C. Pianta. Bob is the Dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, an expert in early childhood, and the developer of the CLASS quality assessment and improvement tool, which has recently been adopted by the national Head Start program and several states’ efforts. He is also part of an early education action team of researchers, donors, and practitioners whose experience and knowledge have informed our guidance to donors.

Center: We define early childhood as 0 – 8. One critical stage of early childhood development is the preschool years, ages 3- 5. What's the one thing you would like donors to know about preschool quality, particularly for low-income, vulnerable children?

The most important ingredient in preschool, for promoting children's learning and development, is the quality of interactions between teachers and children in classrooms. These interactions build motivation to learn, stimulate language development and problem solving, promote qualities like persistence and self-control, and are key for children acquiring the knowledge and skills present in a curriculum or instructional activity. Quality, in preschool, is all about effective interactions; in fact that’s why we have spent so much time building an assessment tool like the CLASS, which early educators can use to observe, assess, and improve these critical resources for children.  

For low-income, vulnerable children, it is even more important that they receive experiences in preschool that are very rich in the types of interactions with teachers that will promote development and learning. Right now, too many young children are in preschool classrooms in which teacher-child interactions lack these qualities — the all-too-typical experience is for poor children to be in classrooms in which teacher-child interactions are characterized by a focus on rote learning, little in the way of conversation or rich vocabulary, and teachers are reactive to children's behavior, or uninvolved. For poor children, improving these interactions is truly a necessary ingredient for healthy development. And adding to this challenge is that most publicly-funded preschool programs are also not using the most recent, and proven-effective, curricula.

Center: What are common or current misperceptions about this issue? 

There are two common misperceptions about preschool quality and about teacher-child interactions. The first is that quality is best indexed by the materials in a room (e.g., books, games), or by the qualifications of the teacher (e.g., their degree). In fact, these features of preschool, although they are the ones most typically regulated by states or indexed by quality "checklists," show virtually no relation to children's learning. Teachers matter a lot, but its what they do with children that really matters, hence the importance of interactions. 

The first [misperception] is that quality is best indexed by the materials in a room, or the qualifications of the teacher (e.g., their degree) . . . Teachers matter a lot, but its what they do with children that really matters, hence the importance of interactions. 

The second common misperception is that teacher-child interactions are so complex that they can't be measured, or they are an inherent reflection of the teacher's personality, or they can't be systematically changed. In fact, none of these beliefs are true. We have evidence from years of work using CLASS in tens of thousands of classrooms, proving that trained observers can systematically apply rating scales to teacher-child interactions. Standardized ratings of teachers’ interactions with children that focus on language stimulation, sensitivity to children’s cues, productive use of time, and quality of teacher feedback, for example, actually predict children's learning. Most importantly, we and others have shown that teachers can be supported and trained in ways that improve their interactions with children (and also improve children's learning).

The second common misperception is that teacher-child interactions are so complex that they can't be measured, or they are an inherent reflection of the teacher's personality, or they can't be systematically changed.  In fact, none of these beliefs are true.

For example, we developed and tested a college course on interactions (using the CLASS as the basis) that improved teachers’ instructional supports to children; we have a coaching model called MyTeachingPartner that improves interactions and children’s self-regulation and language development. Teachstone, a company I co-founded, delivers training and resources for CLASS and related professional development. Other researchers, such as Karen Bierman at Penn State developed a literacy and socioemotional learning program called REDI, and a coaching program for teachers, that improves both teachers’ interactions and student learning. The preschool PATHS program is a proven effective model for supporting children’s social skills and self-regulation; my colleague Mark Greenberg has formed a company to deliver it more widely. For math, Doug Clements and Julie Sarama at the University of Denver have a wealth of evidence showing their Building Blocks curriculum and teacher professional development program is very effective for improving learning. And John Fantuzzo at the University of Pennsylvania has developed and tested a comprehensive preschool curriculum, assessment, and teacher professional development program called EPIC that is showing very promising results.  

We have abundant evidence that we can really move the needle for teachers and children.  The biggest challenge is getting preschool programs to adopt what we know works, and getting teacher preparation programs to train teachers in these key interaction skills and in how to implement effective curricula.

Center: What additional advice would you offer to a donor considering investing in this area (and who cares about impact)?

For a donor interested in preschool because they believe preschool can have a real impact on children's development (particularly poor children), I would advise due diligence on ensuring their philanthropic support is going to something that is most likely to make a real difference.  What’s needed are investments in people — in the teachers in these classrooms — and developing skills they need to teach kids. There are measures of these skills and of kids' learning that donors should demand to see used in the programs they invest in.  I’ve mentioned our measure, CLASS, as one indicator of teachers’ skills. The Society for Research in Child Development has a number of informative resources that can help donors evaluate the promise of certain proposals, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development  has an assessment “toolkit” that reflects the most recent knowledge on how best to measure the key skills of young children.

We have abundant evidence that we can really move the needle for teachers and children. The biggest challenge is getting preschool programs to adopt what we know works, and getting teacher preparation programs to train teachers in these key interaction skills and in how to implement effective curricula.

There is a lot of interest in preschool and many donors are engaged; its critical that they become better informed about the kinds of investments likely to make a difference for kids. Donors can really help by identifying teacher professional development, or preschool curricula that have been proven effective in rigorous research but need support to scale-up.