Early Learning Network: Critical Contributions of Classroom Ecology to Children's Learning
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); and Early Education in Rural North Carolina (PI: Margaret Burchinal, R305N160022)
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 generate a comprehensive, empirically driven model of the dimensions of classroom ecology that shape children's academic and social development during the elementary grades. This research project builds upon a strong evidence base which suggests that features of the classroom ecology—including objective and subjective properties of the classroom environment—exert a strong influence on children's development owing to the large amount of time children spend within classrooms during their formative years. The research team will examine four dimensions of classroom ecology: classroom composition (e.g., gender, race/ethnicity and ability of students); classroom network and norms (e.g., the breadth, depth, and quality of peer affiliations among children within a classroom); teacher practices (e.g., teachers' approaches to organizing and delivering instruction); and student experiences (e.g., students' academic and social experiences within the classroom, including their engagement, the quality of their relationship with the teacher, their social status, and their peer relations). The researchers will investigate how change within the classroom ecology over successive years of schooling works to shape children's development.
Project Activities: The research team will conduct three interrelated, exploratory studies.
For Study 1, the researchers will conduct interviews and collect descriptive data to understand how state, local and school level policies and programmatic decisions influence classroom ecologies in the state of Ohio. For Study 2, the researchers will collect classroom-level data to determine the ways in which dimensions of classroom ecology uniquely and interactively relate to children's outcomes in prekindergarten through third grade. For Study 3, the research team will conduct a longitudinal study to examine the classroom ecology as experienced by students from kindergarten entry through third grade. The longitudinal sample will include children enrolled in center-based preschool programs as well as children receiving non-center-based care before kindergarten entry. Study 3 will provide an understanding of how the nature of children's kindergarten experiences may serve to equalize the academic and social development of children who start school with different types of preschool experiences, and identify those dimensions of kindergarten ecology that may be most influential. 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 three studies will lead to a unified, comprehensive model of the classroom ecology and its multiple and inter-related dimensions. This comprehensive model will include examination of policies and practices that affect classroom ecology and how these are generated and diffused; it will also include a description of the dimensionality of classroom ecology, and the extent to which specific dimensions are associated with children's outcomes during each of the first years of schooling. In addition, this work will describe stability and change in classroom ecologies, as experienced by a longitudinal sample of children followed through third grade, and describe how stability and change is associated with transition to kindergarten and subsequent trajectories for preschool participants and non-participants. The researchers will disseminate their research findings to range of audiences, including early childhood practitioners, elementary school personnel, policymakers, and other researchers.
Setting: This project will take place in Ohio. The primary setting for Study 1 (systems-level study) will be the entire state of Ohio. The setting for Studies 2 and 3 is Columbus, Ohio.
Sample: The sample for Study 1 will include state-level policymakers as well as school personnel (e.g., superintendents, administrators, and teachers) from approximately 30 districts across Ohio. The sample for Study 2 will include 2,760 children from 150 classrooms, spanning prekindergarten to third grade. The sample for Study 3 will include 400 4-year olds, of which 240 attend district-supported preschools the year before kindergarten and 160 children who do not attend center-based preschool (80 from family-based preschools and 80 in parental care).
Intervention: The study is examining existing policies and programs. No intervention is being introduced for the project.
Research Design and Methods: For Study 1, the research team will collect data and study patterns of change at four levels (state, district, school, and classroom) in years 1, 2 and 4 of the project. They will complete document reviews and conduct semi-structured interviews with preschool program staff and school district personnel. Within each district (n=30), researchers will interview key informants (including superintendents, principals, teachers, and school board members) to gain a comprehensive overview of the district.
For Study 2, the researchers will recruit two cohorts of students and teachers from one school district in Ohio. Each cohort will participate in the study for a single academic year. Members of the research team will collect measures of children's learning and achievement, dimensions of classroom ecology, and family and teacher characteristics. The research team will collect direct child assessment data in fall and spring of each year. For Study 3, the research team will conduct a longitudinal study and follow 400 children over time from kindergarten through third grade.
Study 3 will begin in year 1 of the project and will focus on three subgroups: prekindergarten children enrolled in Study 2 who are drawn from center-based preschool programs affiliated with the school district; 4-year-old children drawn from licensed family child care settings within the school district catchment area; and children who are in no type of formal care arrangement before kindergarten. For Study 3, the research team will assess children once per year (spring of each year) and collect classroom-level data twice per year fall and spring). The researchers will also collect caregiver data in spring of year 2 and winter of years 2–5.
Control Condition: Due to the nature of the research design, there is no control condition.
Key Measures: For Study 1, the researchers will conduct semi-structured interviews. The interview protocol will include questions about four dimensions of classroom ecology (classroom composition, classroom network and norms, teacher practices, student experiences), communication and cooperation (vertical communication between personnel at different levels and horizontal communication between teachers at different grade levels), and continuity and change. Measures of classroom ecology include peer nomination procedures (using student reports), classroom observations, teacher reports of classroom learning-based and network-based practices, and measures of classroom composition. Researchers will use the Classroom Assessment Scoring System and the Classroom Observation System to collect classroom observational data. The research team will measure student outcomes using three subtests (Picture Vocabulary, Letter-Word Identification and Applied Problems) of the Woodcock Johnson Test of Achievement-III (academic skills), the Teacher Child Rating Scale and the Head-to-Toes task (social-behavioral competence), teacher reported grades, attendance, and disciplinary actions (academic adjustment), and measures of social preference in conjunction with the Loneliness and Social Dissatisfaction questionnaire and the School Avoidance Questionnaire (emotional adjustment). Measures of teacher-level factors will include the Teacher Self-Efficacy Scale, Teacher's Sense of the School as Community, a measure of school climate, and the Attitude toward Teaching as a Career questionnaire, a measure of job satisfaction. Measures of family teacher attributes will include a family background questionnaire, a measure of family involvement in children's schooling and a caregiver report of household stability (a measure of the number of moves the child has experienced in the last five years). Researchers will use the Confusion, Hubbub, and Order Scale to assess the organization of the home environment.
Data Analytic Strategy: For Study 1, the researchers will develop a preliminary coding scheme to code the interview data. They research team will use QRS International's NVivo 10, a qualitative analysis software program, to manage and analyze data. The researchers will use qualitative data to examine the variety of practices and policies implemented across the state and examine how policies and practices vary across different areas of the state. The researchers will use the results to map the malleable features of the classroom ecology examined in the cross-sectional and longitudinal study onto the policies and procedures. For Study 2, the researchers will conduct multilevel factor analysis and multilevel structural equation modeling to test models of classroom ecology and associations with child outcomes at different grade levels. For Study 3, the researchers will conduct multilevel analyses to examine how kindergarten classroom ecology predicts children's adjustment to kindergarten and the growth trajectories of students' academic skills (reading, math, language), social behavioral competence (behavior problems, social competence, self-regulation), and emotional adjustment (social preference, loneliness, and school avoidance) from prekindergarten to third grade. The research team will conduct latent profile analysis to examine stability and change in children's classroom ecologies across grades and relations to children's long-term academic and social development.