Teacher presses young boy's hand onto paper to make a handprint.

UVA Researchers Play Key Role in Two States' Efforts to Expand Quality Early Childhood Education

Virginia and Louisiana landed nearly $18M in federal grants to enhance their early childhood education initiatives. UVA researchers are a critical part of both projects.

Audrey Breen

With a nearly $18M investment from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services through its latest round of Preschool Development Grants, early childhood educators and policymakers in Virginia and Louisiana are partnering with researchers at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education and Human Development to enhance early education.

Curry School researchers have supported early childhood education improvement efforts in both states for some time.

“These new grant projects are the result of years-long partnerships between academic researchers, educators and policymakers in the work of expanding access to high-quality early childhood experiences for all children,” said Bob Pianta, dean of the Curry School.

Bridging Gaps in Virginia’s Fragmented Early Childhood System

Young children in the Commonwealth of Virginia spend their days in a variety of care settings ranging from homes where a single caregiver takes care of a small group of children to much more structured classrooms in private child care centers or public schools.  Early childhood programs vary widely with respect to the services they provide, the quality regulations they must meet, the pay they offer their teachers, and ultimately the learning experiences they provide for young children.

“Children from very low-income families, children with special needs, and dual language learners are also less likely to access quality and affordable programs that prepare them for kindergarten compared to children from more advantaged families,” said Amanda Williford, research associate professor at the Curry School.

As part of the $9.9M Preschool Development Grant awarded to the Virginia Department of Education, the Commonwealth, in partnership with the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation, aims to increase the number of early childhood programs that serve vulnerable children and to support the continuous improvement of these publicly funded care and education sites. Ultimately, the goal is that by 2022, more children in Virginia will arrive ready for their first day of kindergarten.

Daphna Bassok, associate professor at the Curry School and associate director of the EdPolicyWorks research center is leading a team of UVA researchers to support this effort.

In the first of two primary parts of the partnership the UVA team is developing a new system to collect early childhood education data in a more systematic way than it has been before.

“It is difficult to systematically create real improvement in access and quality when we don’t even have a good sense of what is currently available in the current, fragmented system,” Bassok said. “Our goal is to be able to answer basic but important questions about the early childhood landscape: How many programs exist? Who are they serving? Who is teaching in those programs?”

The information will be entered into an online portal, being developed by Anita McGinty, research associate professor at the Curry School and Director of the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening or PALS. PALS, an online assessment system created at the Curry School, reflects 20-year policy-practice partnership with Virginia Department of Education for screening 260,000 children annually, up to three times per year.

PALS provides a state-wide early literacy assessment for children PreK and K-3. It also provides a data portal which catalogues every school, classroom, associated teacher, and associated child in 131 of 132 Virginia school divisions and provides a common means of connecting and reaching the teacher workforce.

According to McGinty the new online portal will leverage the second element of the PALS system for the early childhood arena.

“Our ultimate hope is that the early childhood data portal serves as a means of linking and connecting a diverse landscape of early childhood education and care providers so a community can begin to understand the accessibility and quality of its early care and education infrastructure,” McGinty said. “But it is also being built with a hope of its dynamic use--even at an individual site or teacher level. So that data becomes a tool for reflection, problem-solving, and planning and not just something that occurs to serve an administrative reporting function.”

In another major element of the project, the UVA team will survey a large sample of early childhood educators, including program leaders, teachers and assistant. According to Bassok, early childhood educators typically work for low wages, experience high levels of stress, and leave their jobs at high rates. The researchers hope to better understand strategies to improve the well-being of the early childhood education workforce.

“A lot of the grant funds Virginia received are going directly to early childhood education teachers to acknowledge their hard work and their huge contribution to young children’s development.” Bassok said. “These educators are, of course, the drivers of quality in these classrooms.”

Bassok’s team will study the effects of these monetary supports on early childhood educators.

Measuring Quality Classrooms in Louisiana

In addition to her work in Virginia, since 2014, Bassok has also been at the center of a partnership between the Louisiana Department of Education and the Curry School aiming to support Louisiana’s efforts to ensure every high-need student has an available spot in a high-quality early childhood classroom.

Beginning in 2012, Louisiana embarked on an effort to build a much more unified early childhood system, to improve quality system-wide, and to ensure families could easily find early childhood options that met their needs.

Toward that goal the state began measuring the quality of every single publicly funded early childhood classroom, including all pre-kindergarten programs, subsidized childcare centers, and Head Start programs in the state, multiple times a year. They do so by utilizing the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, a classroom quality assessment tool created by the Curry School’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning.

Bassok and Anna Markowitz, research assistant professor at the Curry School are partnering with the state to ensure that the quality measures are accurate, and that programs that receive the best ratings are the ones where young children are learning most.

“Accurately measuring quality in early childhood settings is important but time-consuming, and difficult to do well,” Markowitz said. “Louisiana is unique in the commitment they have made to measuring the quality of teacher-child interactions across every single publicly-funded program repeatedly. What is exciting is how this commitment can pay even larger dividends in helping Louisiana identify programs and strategies that really work for young children.”

According to Bassok, the data that Louisiana has gathered allows researchers to move beyond asking, ‘Can we measure quality accurately?’ toward more important questions like, ‘Which programs and which communities are seeing real improvements in quality and access, and what can we learn from them to foster change?’

By linking this quality improvement data to new surveys, Bassok and her team hope to identify promising strategies for fostering quality improvement.

“By partnering with Virginia and Louisiana we are able to answer much more timely and relevant questions, on a much greater scale than we could otherwise,” Bassok said. “The work feels more urgent and meaningful when you know it’s part of a real and concrete effort to foster change, and you know that people who can really effect change are listening.”

Virginia Policy Partnership Collaborative

This work is part of the ongoing efforts aimed at connecting UVA researchers and students with education policymakers to address pressing education problems in the Commonwealth through careful research.