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IES Grant

Title: Early Learning Contexts in Rural and Urban Nebraska
Center: NCER Year: 2016
Principal Investigator: Sheridan, Susan Awardee: University of Nebraska, Lincoln
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: $4,499,878
Type: Exploration and Measurement Award Number: R305N160016

Co-Principal Investigators: James Bovaird (University of Nebraska, Lincoln), Iheoma Iruka (University of Nebraska), and Lisa Knoche (University of Nebraska, Lincoln)

Related Network Teams: Early Learning Network Lead (PI: Susan Sheridan, R305N160015,); Optimizing Learning Opportunities for Students' (OLOS) Early Learning Observation System (PUI: Carol Connor, R305N160013-Assessment Team); Boston P–3: Identifying Malleable Factors for Promoting Student Success (PI: JoAnn Hsueh, R305N160018); 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 Education in Rural North Carolina (PI: Margaret Burchinal, R305N160022); and 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: The research team will investigate cumulative influences on early learning and achievement for young children at economic disadvantage across rural and urban settings in a Midwestern state. The researchers will examine macro-level policy and micro-level classroom factors: responsiveness (approaches or personal experiences that attend to child need); organization and structure (the capacity of schools and classrooms to function effectively); instructional support (e.g., staff qualifications and salaries, knowledge among school leadership on early learning, and teachers' instructional support or provision of opportunities to learn); use of data (e.g., data use policies that are aligned with student assessments and progress monitoring via curriculum-based and general outcomes); and partnerships between schools, teachers, and parents.

Project Activities: The researchers will conduct three interconnected, exploratory studies. In Study 1, the researchers will assess federal and state-level policies and their operationalization at the local level, as well as local practices across distinctive rural and urban community settings. The research team will look at alignment between local policies and practices and federal and state policies and examine the conditions associated with adoption of current local policies and practices. The researchers will also examine associations between specific policies and practices and children's outcomes from prekindergarten to third grade. In Study 2, the research team will assess the implementation of classroom practices and processes and identify malleable factors that differentiate child outcomes across rural and urban communities. The researchers will also examine the extent to which community setting (rural versus urban) moderates the association between malleable classroom practices and children's academic, social, and behavioral skills in prekindergarten to third grade. In Study 3, the researchers will determine the short- and long-term effects of malleable factors on children's academic and social-emotional outcomes, and assess whether the presence of malleable factors across transitions from preschool to Grade 3 narrows the achievement gap for children living in socio-demographic disadvantage. The research team will investigate the effects of malleable factors on children's outcomes at each transition period across the prekindergarten to third grade continuum and the overall, long-term effects of malleable factors on children's developmental trajectories and achievement. The research team will also work with the Assessment Team to develop a new classroom observation tool that will be used to assess structural and process features of pre-k and kindergarten to third grade classrooms.

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. Findings from the three studies will provide reliable information for policymakers and practitioners to understand variations in practices that augment transitions and early learning; determine malleable factors that improve learning environments and promote school readiness and academic achievement for disadvantaged children; and understand the processes necessary for effective transitions from prekindergarten through Grade 3 in rural and urban communities. 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: The project will take place in twelve geographically-dispersed school districts in Nebraska.

Sample: The study sample will include 12 school districts (ten rural and two urban districts) and a total of 50 preschools and elementary schools (25 urban and 25 rural). The Study 1 sample will include approximately 120 to 160 people who are knowledgeable about district- and school-level policies. The Study 2 sample will include 350 classrooms and a total student sample of 1,400. For Study 3, the researchers will select 70 preschool classrooms (35 rural, 35 urban) for participation in Year 1. The child sample will include 246 preschool attenders and 246 non-attending preschool children for a total child sample of 492.

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: Study 1 will begin in year 1 with identification of school contacts across the 12 districts. Interviews, data collection, and preliminary analyses will occur in year 2; follow-up data collection in districts will take place in year 4, with final analyses occurring in year 5. For Study 1, the researchers will complete a literature review to reinforce and expand the malleable policies and practices originally identified for investigation. The research team will conduct key informant interviews and document reviews to obtain qualitative information about policies and practices. The researchers will also collect descriptive quantitative data related to community characteristics (including population size and local economy) and school district outcomes (including percentage of on-target grade progressions, academic performance, social/behavioral outcomes, attendance, class size, and teacher-student ratios).

Study 2 will begin in the year 2 in 25 schools. Prekindergarten observations and child assessments will occur for half of the sample across prekindergarten to grade 3. Recruitment for the second half of the sample and assessment of the remaining classrooms and students (pre-k to grade 3) will take place the following academic year. The research team will conduct classroom observations and collect direct child assessments and teacher report data in spring of each school year. Researchers will conduct classroom observations using unobtrusive webcams. Teachers will complete student surveys via a web-based data collection portal. For child assessments, the research team will randomly select four children from each classroom for direct child assessments.

For Study 3, the research team will assess the students participating in the longitudinal study on six occasions: in the fall and spring of preschool, and spring only in kindergarten, and grades 1, 2 and 3. The research team will conduct classroom observations to assess malleable classroom practices. The researchers will also collect data from teachers and parents and conduct direct assessments of students' academic achievement and social behavioral skills.

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

Key Measures: To assess malleable factors at the classroom/teacher level, the research team will use three observational tools, the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, EduSnap, and a researcher-developed environmental scan for structural features such as class size and presence of learning centers, to collect classroom-level data. The researchers will assess the family-school connection via teacher report on the Parent-Teacher Relationship Scale. The research team will assess student academic and social-emotional outcomes with the Academic Rating Scale (ARS) of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. Teachers will use the Social Skills Improvement System (SSIS) and Preschool Learning Behavior (PLBS)/Learning Behavior Scale (LBS) to report on children's social behavioral skills. Measures for Study 3 will include the Broad Reading and Broad Math subtests of the Woodcock-Johnson IV for English speaking children and the Batería III Woodcock-Muñoz for Spanish-speaking children, the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test and Spanish equivalent, and the Expressive Vocabulary Test-2 to participating children. Parents and teachers will complete measures of children's social-behavioral skills (SSIS and Behavioral and Emotional Screening System-BESS), executive functioning (Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function), and academic behaviors (PLBS/LBS).

Data Analytic Strategy: For Study 1, the researchers will use qualitative and mixed methods approaches. For interview data, the researchers will use a two-phase qualitative analysis process: (1) coding of interviews to inductively develop themes and develop an initial code book, and (2) recoding interviews by applying the themes from phase 1. For document reviews, the researchers will extract two kinds of data for analysis: (1) simple numerical data pertaining to school districts (such as budget information, outcome data, and community characteristics), and (2) review of curricula, policy documents, and program descriptions. The researchers will analyze the results of key informant interviews; the match between school policies/practices and evidence-informed principles for grade-level instruction; and the alignment of curricula, policy documents, and program descriptions with federal and state policy using SPSS software and Microsoft Excel for descriptive quantitative data analysis. For the study of classroom practices (Study 2), the research team will conduct both descriptive and inferential analyses, including multi-level modeling. For the longitudinal investigation of children (Study 3), the researchers will utilize cross-classified multi-level modeling to examine associations between malleable factors and student learning and achievement over time.