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IES Grant

Title: Early Education in Rural North Carolina
Center: NCER Year: 2016
Principal Investigator: Burchinal, Margaret Awardee: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Program: Supporting Early Learning From Preschool Through Early Elementary School Grades Network      [Program Details]
Award Period: 5 years (6/1/2016-5/31/2021) Award Amount: $4,498,879
Goal: Exploration and Measurement Award Number: R305N160022

Co-Principal Investigators: Ellen Peisner-Feinberg(University of North Carolina Chapel Hill), Lora Vogel-Cohen (University of North Carolina Chapel Hill)

Related Network Teams: Early Learning Network Lead (PI: Susan Sheridan, R305N160015); Optimizing Learning Opportunities for Students' (OLOS) Early Learning Observation System (PI: Carol Connor, R305N160013-Assessment Team); Early Learning Contexts in Rural and Urban Nebraska (PI: Susan Sheridan, R305N160016); Boston P-3: Identifying Malleable Factors for Promoting Student Success (PI: JoAnn Hsueh, R305N60018); Building an Effective PK-3 Education System: Actionable Aspects of Policies, Programs, Schools, and Classroom Processes that Promote Children's Learning in the Nation's 11th Largest School District (PI: Robert Pianta, R305N160021); Early Learning Network: Critical Contributions of Classroom Ecology to Children's Learning (PI: Laura Justice, R305N160024)

Description: A Research Network involves several teams of researchers who are working together to address a critical education problem or issue. The objective is to build new knowledge, encourage information-sharing, and assist policymakers and practitioners to strengthen education policies and programs and improve student education outcomes. Members of the Early Learning Network will identify malleable factors that support early learning from preschool through early elementary school grades. They will also develop a classroom observation tool that practitioners can use to assess aspects of classroom quality that are associated with positive academic and social-behavioral outcomes in preschool and early elementary school. The Network includes five Research Teams, an Assessment team, and a Network Lead.

Purpose: This research team will explore malleable factors in early education from preschool through third grade that are believed to promote early learning and development for children. The researchers will focus on rural North Carolina, which is an important context because of the large achievement gaps related to race and income in the rural Southeast.

Project Activities: The research team will complete three interconnected, exploratory studies. For Study 1, the researchers will describe state and district-level policies that are related to early learning and achievement. The researchers will conduct interviews with early childhood practitioners and school personnel and conduct document reviews. For Study 2, the research team will conduct classroom observations and direct assessments of children's academic and social behavioral skills in fall and spring of each school year to examine associations between classroom processes and practices and child outcomes. For Study 3, the researchers will examine longitudinal educational patterns from pre-k to Grade 3 and will investigate individual differences that moderate the associations between classroom practices and child outcomes within and across grades. The researchers will use data collected for Study 2 to address these issues. The research team will also work with the Assessment Team to develop a new classroom observation tool to assess structural and process features of pre-k and kindergarten to third grade classrooms that are associated with child outcomes.

Products: The research team will work to produce study findings and databases to inform future policy and practice in early childhood programs and early elementary school classrooms. The researchers will disseminate their research findings to range of audiences, including early childhood practitioners, elementary school personnel, policymakers, and other researchers.

Structured Abstract

Setting: This project will take place in four rural counties in North Carolina (NC). The counties were selected due to varying levels of investment and enrollment ("penetration") in the state-funded pre-k program (NC Pre-K). Two counties are "high penetration" of publicly-funded pre-k counties, and two counties are "low penetration" of publicly-funded pre-k counties.

Sample: For Study 1 (the policy study), the sample will include state and school district officials. For Studies 2 and 3 (the classroom and longitudinal studies, respectively), the sample will include 320 children (40 percent dual language learners) from 60 NC Pre-K classrooms and 240 children (30 percent dual language learners) without center-based preschool experience from the kindergarten classes of the pre-k sample. For kindergarten to grade 3, the sample will include 120 classrooms and approximately 400–500 children per year.

Intervention: The study is examining existing policies and programs in the study sites. No intervention is being introduced for the project.

Research Design and Methods: For Study 1, the research team will review state and local education policy documents and conduct semi-structured interviews with preschool program personnel and state and school district employees in each county. The researchers will develop an initial set of four interview guides for use with state (pre-k and kindergarten to grade 3) and district participants (pre-k and K–3).

For Study 2, the research team will complete a classroom observation study of within-grade associations of malleable classroom factors as predictors of gains in students' language, academic, executive functioning, and social-behavioral skills within each year from pre-k to grade 3.

In Study 3, the researchers will extend Study 2 as a longitudinal quantitative study of factors that maintain or enhance within-grade gains across grades. Studies 2 and 3 are closely linked and will share the same sample and measurement techniques.

For Studies 2 and 3, the researchers will recruit participants and randomly select 10 to 20 NC Pre-K classrooms per county in the first year to achieve a total of 30 classrooms with lower penetration and 30 classrooms in counties with higher pre-k penetration for a total sample of 60 classrooms. The research team will recruit four to six children in each of the 60 NC Pre-K classrooms in fall 2016. In year 2 (kindergarten year), the researchers will follow the pre-k cohort of children into elementary school. They will also recruit a new group of children who did not attend center-based preschools. In years 3 to 5, the researchers will follow the children each year into approximately 120 classrooms in each grade, conduct classroom observations and direct child assessments. Each year, the researchers will conduct fall and spring student assessments, conduct winter classroom observations, and collect parent and teacher surveys. Data collected in years 1 to 5 will be used to examine malleable classroom characteristics that are associated with child outcomes. For Study 3, the researchers will use data collected each year to examine factors related to longitudinal patterns of gains from pre-k to grade 3 and will investigate individual differences that moderate the associations between classroom practices and child outcomes within and across grades.

Control Condition: Due to the nature of the research design, there is no control condition.

Key Measures: Classroom observations will include ratings of teacher-child interactions, frequency and quality of language exchanges, frequency of teaching basic and higher-order thinking skills in math and reading instruction, and differentiated instruction. Classroom observation measures will include the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, the Language Interaction Snapshot, Measures of Academic Progress, and the Early Language and Literacy Classroom Observation Addendum for English Language Learners. Teachers will complete a survey and rate social behavioral competence. The teacher survey is a web-based survey with questions drawn from the 2010–2011 Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten cohort. The researchers will use the kindergarten survey for pre-k and kindergarten, and grade specific surveys in grades 1–3. Teachers will use the Teacher-Child Rating Scale to rate children's social competence and problem behaviors. Parents will rate maternal/paternal school involvement, and report on family demographics and the home environment. Parents will complete an annual demographic questionnaire as well as ECLS-K parent survey items about parental involvement with the child, parents' involvement in the school, academic socialization and motivation, and racial socialization, if relevant. Direct assessments will measure children's language, academic, and executive functioning skills in English for all students and in Spanish for DLLs. Measures will include the English (Woodcock Johnson III Tests of Achievement) or Spanish (Bateria III Woodcock-Munoz) subtests (Picture Vocabulary, Letter-Word Identification, Applied Problems, Sound Awareness—pre-k and kindergarten, and Passage Comprehension—grades 1–3), the Expressive One-Word Picture Vocabulary Test (English and Spanish versions), two measures from the NIH Executive Function Toolbox (Dimensional Change Card Sort and Flanker Inhibitory Control and Attention Test).

Data Analytic Strategy: For Study 1, members of the research team will record and transcribe all interviews and conduct case study analysis to capture findings and emerging themes. The researchers will use NVIVO, a qualitative coding software package, to assign codes for grade level and complete a second round of coding to capture four policy dimensions: 1) primary program vehicles, 2) policy objectives, 3) target populations, and 4) delivery systems. After coding is complete, analysts will create indices that rate for each year the extent to which the local education agency has horizontally-aligned policies regarding instruction, assessments, and professional development, and a separate set of indices that describe the extent they have aligned state and LEA policies regarding these issues. At the end of each year and at the conclusion of the project, the researchers will also rate the extent to which curricula and policies regarding instructional practices, use of child assessments for instruction, and professional development are aligned vertically. The researchers will use hierarchical linear models to examine the extent to which pre-k experience and pre-k penetration and selected malleable factors (policy and practice alignment, teacher-child interactions, teacher-child language exchanges, instruction, differentiation, and parent involvement) predict within-grade gains and the maintenance of gains over time. Analyses will account for nesting of children in classrooms and classrooms in school districts. The researchers will also conduct sensitivity analyses, including threshold analyses and econometric methods, to examine findings.