Classroom ratings shed light on preschool quality

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Data from observations of 700 Chicago pre-kindergarten classrooms shows  that just 17 percent of the classrooms were rated as highly effective for  supporting student growth.

An even larger number of classrooms – 20 percent – were at the bottom of the heap, and did not meet benchmarks for effective practice in any of the three areas assessed by the observation.

Even so, Chicago’s results aren’t out of the ordinary: its classroom scores are similar to those found in a 2005 National Center for Early Development and Learning study of 705 state-funded preschool classrooms in 11 states.

But the observations show room for teachers to grow. Now, the data is being used to steer preschool teachers to tailored professional development classes, and the classrooms will be rated again this coming fall. Results from those ratings could be available as soon as spring 2012.

What the CLASS observations found:

*The two most challenging areas for teachers were instructional support (academic interactions with students) and classroom organization.

*Classrooms in which teachers had bachelor’s degrees and more experience scored higher in some areas. But classrooms where teachers had been at the same school for a number of years scored higher across the board.

*The study found no significant differences between the classroom scores of teachers with and without master’s degrees.
   

The classrooms were rated between January and April 2010 with the CLASS (Classroom Assessment Scoring System) framework, which scores interactions between teachers and students during a two-hour period.

CLASS is based on research that has found that students do better in classrooms where teachers are emotionally supportive, create an organized and structured environment, and provide high-level instruction. Disadvantaged students placed in highly-rated classrooms, research has shown, can actually catch up to their peers.

Chicago’s project is the first of its type in the nation.

Data from the observations, obtained by Catalyst Chicago from the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services through a Freedom of Information Act request, found that 43 percent of classrooms had high scores on emotional support. (Catalyst also expects to receive data on school-by-school CLASS ratings in the next several weeks.)

That rating scale measures whether a teacher enjoys children and supports them in developing self-esteem, curiosity, and resilience. The rest of the classrooms, 57 percent, got mid-range scores.

But classroom organization – a measure of teachers’ use of routines, the physical environment, and clear expectations for managing behavior – was not such a strong point. Just one-fifth of classrooms got high scores.  Almost all of the rest were in the middle.

In instructional support – the area that most teachers have the hardest time with, and the only one where a mid-range score is considered effective – just two percent of classrooms received high-range scores; three-fourths fell into the scale’s middle range; and about a quarter were found to be ineffective.

The instructional support rating scale covers interactions where teachers may offer hints that help a child do a task at a higher level; ask children questions; or celebrate their successes.

“It is helping (teachers) break the concept apart,” says Lourdes Lambert, an assistant director for program implementation at TeachStone, the foundation-backed company that is bringing CLASS to the educational market.  Lambert is working with the city to conduct research using CLASS. “You want to make sure you are asking questions that promote analysis and reasoning… activities that (facilitate) prediction, and comparison and contrast.”

She adds that instruction works best when concepts are linked back to previous learning “because it makes it easier for a child to learn (when there are) connections to the real world.”

A report that summarized the observation data also looked at teacher characteristics. For instance, it found that there were no significant differences between teachers with master’s degrees and teachers without.

However, some other factors appeared to make a difference when it came to classroom quality.

The 43 percent of programs in the study that receive state child care funding – often extended-day programs, which offer pre-K instruction blended with child care for up to 11 hours a day – got lower scores in all three of the assessment’s areas.

While additional time for learning can give students a stronger foundation for kindergarten, this advantage could be lessened if the programs are lower-quality. The community-based organizations that run such programs often ask teachers to work longer hours, for less pay than preschool teachers get in CPS schools.

Experienced teachers had higher scores in instructional support. Teachers with at least a bachelor’s degree had higher scores in the areas of classroom organization and instructional support, and teachers who had stayed at one site for a number of years saw increased scores in all three areas.

In about 200 of the classrooms, teachers left or moved after data was collected, so researchers had to re-do the observations with the new teachers.

The study is being conducted in classrooms funded through Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services, which oversees almost all of the city’s Head Start sites (including those in CPS). The vast majority of the classrooms in the study – 98 percent – are part of the Head Start program; some of them, 42 percent, also receive state Preschool for All funding.

The focus on Head Start classrooms is no coincidence: Proposed federal rules will put Head Start programs at risk of losing their funding if they receive two low CLASS ratings in a row. 

Since the observations, teachers have been assigned to different professional development based on their scores. In general, the classrooms with the lowest ratings are receiving coaching through the MyTeachingPartner program, in which teachers videotape their instruction and work with coaches through teleconferencing.

The teachers whose classrooms showed a mix of strengths and weaknesses have mostly been directed toward four three-hour workshops on “Understanding the CLASS Framework” or given access to a video-based online self-study program, which takes about 20 to 30 hours to complete. 

In the near future, a number of teachers may also be offered spots in a graduate-level course on the CLASS. Some teachers are participating in more than one learning opportunity.

But Lambert says the project has gotten a mixed reaction.

“I think people are a little overwhelmed. They are already doing a lot and this adds one more thing to their plate,” Lambert says. “Communication has been an issue… people are always suspicious when they don’t understand something.”

Down the line, a wider range of grades could see the same focus on teacher-student interaction that pre-K teachers are getting now. A K-3 version of the tool has already been released, and rating scales for toddlers, grades 4-6 and the secondary years are in the process of being developed.