Ideas and Evidence 2021

Three Ways to Support High-Quality Early Care and Education by Investing in Teachers

June 2021

This commentary originally appeared in Early Learning Nation.

Congress and the Biden Administration have proposed and enacted some of the largest investments in early childhood since the 1960s. A portion of this federal money will most likely be directed at expanding access to early care and education for children ages three to five. But expanding access alone is not enough. Investing in high-quality teaching will be the key to ensuring that this historic investment leads to better outcomes for all children.

Over the last two decades, MDRC has conducted rigorous research in more than 1,000 early education classrooms. The evidence suggests three important investments that states, districts, and programs can make to support high-quality teaching:

Pick curricula with a track record of improving children’s skills in targeted areas of learning—and that provide teachers with clear guidance. Curricula can be a central guide for shaping how teachers plan and deliver activities in the classroom, but not all of them lead to improvements in children’s skills. Choosing a curriculum that is based in strong evidence makes it more likely that you will see positive change in teacher practices and child outcomes. Places like the Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center and the What Works Clearinghouse have good information about choosing curricula.

Some of the most promising curricula draw on evidence-based practices and follow a scope and sequence in specific domains of learning and development, such as math, pre-literacy, science, and social-emotional development. Some examples include Building Blocks for math, Preschool PATHS for social-emotional development, and World of Words for literacy, among others.

Promising curricular models also have clear manuals, materials, and supports for training teachers, so that teachers are able to consistently deliver activities in the classroom to support children’s learning and development. For example, Preschool PATHS uses puppet shows to teach children about their emotions. In the training, teachers learn how to use the puppets, are provided with detailed scripts that they can adopt or adapt, and are given extra activities for students that reinforce each lesson.

Research shows that school systems can successfully adopt evidence-based curricula and provide adequate training in a short time frame, on a large scale. Seventeen districts in a variety of states, including Ohio, California, Texas, and Mississippi, implemented the Preschool PATHS curriculum and the Incredible Years Teacher Training programs in more than 100 Head Start centers and found that they improved teachers’ practices and children’s social and emotional skills.

Provide teachers with robust ongoing training and coaching. It takes time and ongoing support for teachers to consistently implement new practices in the classroom, just like for any profession. Too often teachers receive training on a curriculum just once, in the summer before school starts, and are then expected to implement it faithfully for the next nine months. But teachers benefit from ongoing training that allows them to try out new strategies in their classrooms throughout the year.

Boston Public Schools conducts an introductory training before the start of the school year to immerse teachers in Boston’s math and literacy program. Teachers get the opportunity to choose from a menu of workshops focused on topics like delivering rich math content, providing instruction that aligns with students’ lived experiences, and learning techniques for exposing students to advanced vocabulary. Then, trainings are scheduled every couple of months to refresh teachers on what they’ve learned and prepare them for new content; to allow teachers to bring back observations and questions from their classrooms; and to provide space for peer support and reflection about implementing the program. Teachers have reported high levels of participation and engagement in trainings.

Teachers also benefit from ongoing advice from coaches or educational coordinators. Coaches can observe teachers in their classrooms and provide immediate feedback about what they see, providing real-time problem solving. Across more than 200 Head Start classrooms, teachers were overwhelmingly positive about their coaches, especially when the coaching was teacher-focused, collaborative, and nonsupervisory, and they reported valuing the feedback they received.

Create metrics, and collect and monitor them frequently, to inform continuous quality improvement. Gathering and using data to monitor progress and identify barriers to teachers’ use of the curriculum gives programs the opportunity to provide teachers with real-time support around challenges with materials, administrative support, child-specific issues, or implementing a particular curricular strategy. Some programs do this through coach or teacher logs of daily teaching. Databases can be as sophisticated as an online, flexible management information system (MIS) for tracking program implementation or as straightforward as a spreadsheet.

In many preschool classrooms in New York City, coach logs were used to describe how often teachers were using specific math strategies, whether help was needed with classroom management, and how teachers’ relationships with coaches and co-teachers were going. Logs were monitored to identify classrooms that could use more support, leading to stronger teacher instruction and improvements in how well math was taught in the classroom.

Today’s unprecedented infusion of federal funding provides a rare opportunity for policymakers and administrators to not only expand access to early care and education but to improve the quality of the teaching that happens in classrooms. Let’s make the most of this chance to invest in the professionals who help our young children thrive.