Does Classroom Quality Promote Preschoolers’ Learning?

A Conceptual Framework for Evaluating the Impact of Classroom Quality on Child Outcomes


Introduction

High-quality early care and education is critical for promoting children’s academic, social-emotional, and executive function skills, particularly for children of color and children from families with low incomes. The majority of research examining links between quality and child outcomes is correlational, however, meaning it does not prove that higher classroom quality causes better child outcomes; more study is needed to rigorously test this link. Further, open questions remain. For instance, which specific dimensions of quality matter most? Are there particular levels or thresholds of quality that must be reached to consistently promote children’s learning and development?

The Variations in Implementation of Quality Interventions (VIQI): Examining the Quality-Child Outcomes Relationship in Child Care and Early Education project aims to tackle these open questions and examine the link between classroom quality and 3- and 4-year old preschool children’s developmental outcomes. The VIQI project seeks to create improvements in classroom quality via a three-group, cluster randomized controlled study, in which Head Start and community-based child care centers are randomly assigned to one of two intervention conditions or to a preschool-as-usual control condition. The intervention conditions are two theoretically distinct interventions consisting of curricular and professional development supports. Each intervention is expected to improve multiple aspects of children’s development and learning, but to do so by targeting a specific dimension of quality.

Purpose

This brief describes the VIQI project, its key research questions, and the conceptual framework underlying it. The conceptual framework outlines the pathways by which interventions are expected to lead to the anticipated outcomes in line with prior research.

Key Findings and Highlights

The VIQI conceptual framework highlights three components: (1) inputs, or the multilevel drivers that influence how early care and education programs are implemented and the interventions themselves, (2) outputs, or the activities delivered when conducting an intervention, and (3) classroom, teacher, and child outcomes.

The conceptual framework includes two sets of inputs expected to influence the programming of the early care and education centers participating in the VIQI project:

  • Implementation drivers include individual, center, and contextual features that influence how early care and education programs are implemented in the real world.
  • The selected interventions each consist of three components: (1) a curricular model that includes curricular materials and activities, (2) a professional development model that includes ongoing training and coaching for lead and assistant teachers, and (3) ongoing technical assistance and support by the project team and curriculum developers.

The two interventions have several outputs that represent the activities delivered and received when conducting the interventions. For example, teachers implement the curricular components with children in their classrooms and receive professional development to help them do so, and the project team and curriculum developers monitor implementation and provide technical assistance to teachers and centers.

Three sets of cascading effects, or outcomes, are expected from putting the two interventions in place: (1) short-term improvements in teacher outcomes, such as their knowledge, beliefs, and relationships with co-teachers; (2) short-term improvements in specific dimensions of classroom quality; and (3) longer-term increases in children’s learning and development, including their cognitive, academic, behavioral, social, and emotional competencies.

Maier, Michelle, JoAnn Hsueh, Marie-Andrée Somers, and Margaret Burchinal. 2022. “Does Classroom Quality Promote Preschoolers’ Learning?.” New York: MDRC.