What Matters Most for Teachers and Young Children


At the forefront of debates about early childhood education policy is a focus on raising the quality of learning environments in community-based centers and schools as a means of promoting child development, particularly for low-income children and children of color. Central to this discussion is how policymakers and practitioners can promote the quality of teachers’ professional practice in early childhood classrooms and support the workforce through ongoing professional development. Much more needs to be learned to inform practice and policy regarding what works, and for whom, when promoting quality in early childhood education.

First, there is more to learn about which specific teacher practices best support child outcomes. Evidence  shows that process quality — the quality of teacher-child interactions — is more strongly associated with child outcomes than structural quality — the way classrooms are configured. Less work has focused on the degree to which specific teacher practices related to instructional quality or to particular content domains are associated with child outcomes. Second, experimental research suggests that both teacher training and ongoing coaching are related to improved classroom practice, but it is unclear how much professional development a typical teacher receives or how the level of professional development is related to observed teacher practice. Finally, growing cultural and linguistic diversity in today’s classrooms highlights a need to examine not only which teacher practices matter but also which practices may be more supportive for different subgroups of children. Few empirical studies have examined whether the association between classroom quality and child outcomes varies for children from different subgroups; replication is needed.

What Matters Most for Teachers and Young Children? An Examination of Teacher Practices, Child Outcomes, and Teacher Professional Development in Low-Income Preschool Programs is a secondary data analysis that tackles these questions head-on by examining (a) which specific teacher practices matter for supporting child outcomes, (b) which teacher practices matter for whom, (c) how teacher practices are related to teacher professional development, and (d) patterns in teacher practices, focusing on curriculum implementation.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

What Matters Most for Teachers and Young Children seeks to investigate how specific teacher practices are predictive of child outcomes, examine how teacher professional development may support teacher professional practice, and describe patterns of teacher practice as they naturally occur. Two sets of research questions will be explored. The first examines the pattern of associations in line with a conceptual model’s theorized pathways from teacher professional development to teacher practice to child outcomes. It explores how pathways may vary (a) for children from different racial-ethnic backgrounds or who differ in initial skill levels and (b) for classrooms led by teachers with different experience levels or racial-ethnic backgrounds. The second dives into the implementation process in classrooms receiving a math intervention by examining whether distinct “profiles” of teacher practice can be identified and which teacher and classroom characteristics predict those profiles.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

What Matters Most for Teachers and Young Children is a secondary data analysis using quantitative data from Making Pre-K Count, a large-scale cluster randomized controlled trial conducted by MDRC. Making Pre-K Count evaluated the effect on children’s outcomes of an evidence-based math curriculum (Building Blocks) combined with extensive teacher training and in-classroom coaching. The sample consisted of 69 full-day preschool programs funded by New York City’s Department of Education and Administration for Children’s Services — in public schools and community-based centers, including Head Start — serving a low-income population of 4-year-old children. The preschool sites were selected to reflect the geographic, racial, and ethnic diversity of New York City’s low-income population, although the sample was not designed to be statistically representative. Preschool sites were randomly assigned either to receive two years of curriculum plus professional development (program group) or to continue with “preschool as usual” (control group). A total of 34 preschools (88 classrooms) were in the program group, and 35 preschools (89 classrooms) were in the preschool-as-usual group.

The study was conducted during the school years of 2013-2014 and 2014-2015; data on children were collected in the second year. The data from Making Pre-K Count are uniquely suited to answer this study’s research questions about links among teacher practice, children’s learning, and professional development, because multiple quantitative measures of these constructs were collected, but explicit modeling of such associations was not a primary aim of the Making Pre-K Count study.

In What Matters Most for Teachers and Young Children, structural equation modeling will be used to examine the first set of research questions that follow theorized pathways from teacher professional development to teacher practice to child outcomes and how pathways may vary for different subgroups of children and classrooms. For the second set of research questions, a combination of latent profile analysis and multinomial logistic regression will be used to dive into implementation processes in those classrooms receiving a math intervention by examining “profiles” of teacher practice and which teacher and classroom characteristics predict them.