preschool children

Research into Reality

CASTL looks back over a decade of impact

William H. Smith IV is only a toddler, but his mom, Kaberlyn Daniel, describes him as an effective communicator who shows empathy and compassion for others and who loves to learn. When asked about her three-year-old’s academic and emotional growth, she praises his teachers. “I attribute it all to the E3 School,” she said.

A CASTL Partnership

Not coincidentally, teachers at the E3 School in Norfolk, Virginia, receive Curry School instructional coaching and teach from a Curry-developed curriculum.

“They really challenge children and introduce reading, engineering, arts, math and science from a young age that progresses as they move up through the age levels,” Daniel explained. “I also love how hands-on they are with kids. They keep all the children engaged. It’s like a big family.”

The two-year-old school is a demonstration model of effective early childhood education in Virginia. It was developed by the non-profit E3 (Elevate Early Education) in a partnership with the Curry School’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) led by research associate professors Amanda Williford and Bridget Hamre.

Photo by Sarah Harris

Both the teacher professional development and the curriculum focus on the core skills that form the foundation for all other learning, according to Kate Matthew, the lead content developer at CASTL, “Teachers support children’s capacity to relate to others, regulate attention and behaviors, think creatively and explore, communicate needs and thoughts, and move to achieve goals and stay healthy,” she said.

CASTL’s role in the school is the culmination of a decade of its research on teacher effectiveness and early childhood education. “The E3 School is taking the best of what we know and putting that all together,” said Bob Pianta, dean of the Curry School and CASTL founder. He sees the E3 School as an evolving model that can someday be replicated across Virginia and elsewhere.

Effective Teaching

Yet this new school and its comprehensive foundational curriculum is the product of only one of many facets of work produced by CASTL since its founding in 2006, Pianta explained. “We’re doing research here around a very important societal problem: the assessment and evaluation of effective teaching.”

Jason Downer, associate professor of education and CASTL director

For the past decade, this mission has guided CASTL, which is now under the direction of Jason Downer, associate professor of education. “We’re taking a look at teaching and learning through a scientific lens, but in a very applied way that will make a difference in our schools and communities,” Downer added.

CASTL’s research into education policy and practice spans decades of schooling — from child care programs for toddlers all the way to community colleges and four-year institutions of higher education. Additionally, CASTL concentrates on effectively integrating developmental science and education by studying where students are not just developmentally, academically and cognitively, but also socially and emotionally.

We’re doing a lot of work that is focused on how to help people become good citizens and relate well with others, alongside our mission of being able to make sure they are learning how to read and be good at math and science.

“We’re doing a lot of work that is focused on how to help people become good citizens and relate well with others, alongside our mission of being able to make sure they are learning how to read and be good at math and science,” Downer said.

Downer, who became CASTL’s director in 2013, said that part of the center’s success over the past 10 years has come from pairing its collaborative nature with intellectual rigor.

“The culture of the center and the quality of the work is so top-notch and unique, it was really important to me to try to help sustain that,” he said. “I want to make sure it continues to grow and prosper.”

What Matters Most

Downer said one of the center’s biggest achievements has been creating an observational method of measuring the quality of classrooms known as the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, or CLASS, which is used at both the primary and secondary level.

“It brings attention to what matters most in classrooms,” Downer said. “In early childhood classrooms, for instance, it’s not as much about having the right toys or books, but more about the interactions between the adults and kids in the classroom, because that’s what really drives learning.”

Bridget Hamre, research associate professor and CASTL associate director

Bridget Hamre has been leading efforts to improve the quality of pre-kindergarten and child care experiences for children in communities across Virginia, including the E3 School. She promotes better teacher-child interactions using CASTL-developed tools like the MyTeachingPartner coaching model, which is also used in elementary and secondary schools, and an online course developed for early childhood teachers.

“She’s able to do that work now because of the research we were doing 10 years ago,” Pianta explained. “It shows the virtuous cycle of this kind of work and its contributions to the Commonwealth.”

Those contributions also go far beyond Virginia’s borders, with partners in places such as Kyrgyzstan, Ecuador and Chile. “Countries all around the world are accessing the tools and research capacity here at the Curry School to build their own early education systems, and with international collaborators like the World Bank, it really shows the kind of global reach of our work,” Pianta said.

Translating Research to Practice

From motivational intervention tools that empower students to be successful in community college to a kindergarten-readiness program, CASTL’s tangible successes have been made possible by ensuring the center’s research is shared with state and federal policymakers.

“The idea is to translate the research into practice,” he said. “We’re continuing to make sure that we are working with policymakers, in the state and federally, to ensure the things we are learning will actually get integrated into everyday practices in schools and universities.”

When you get good people working together around interesting ideas, you attract more good people, ideas, projects and research, and the impact grows.

Pianta said CASTL is the ideal home for a team dedicated to evaluating and improving the quality of teaching and looking to turn research into reality.

“When you get good people working together around interesting ideas, you attract more good people, ideas, projects and research, and the impact grows,” Pianta emphasized, with an eye on the decade to come.

“I think the field at large recognizes UVA as a place to come to for work that is not only theoretical and academic, but is able to have implications at a broader scale,” Hamre said. “That ability to be doing research that can make a tangible difference is something we really value, and CASTL’s 10-year anniversary is a time to reflect on what we want to achieve and be thoughtful about the ways in which we can continue to have influence.”

More to Come

The E3 School is one of those tangible results of CASTL’s work, and CASTL’s leaders envision even more significant impacts in the future. They hope to replicate the model refined at E3 and replicate it in other communities across Virginia. The research will not end there, however, said Williford.

“We know from our randomized control studies and the E3 site that this can work, but we don’t know if it will work in every school setting,” she explained. “More evaluation will have to be conducted to see how we can support teachers and schools to make it successful in every kind of setting.”

The E3 project covers only ages 1 to 5, but aligning learning opportunities seamlessly in all early education settings so they build on each other from birth all the way through grade 3 is another of CASTL’s major goal’s, according to Downer. Early childhood policies and curriculum are often developed in isolation from kindergarten and elementary school policies and curriculum. Better alignment may extend the gains made in high-quality preschool environments through those important K–3 school years.

Teacher preparation is another important factor, Downer said, and one that CASTL is working to address. “There is a pressing need to produce effective teachers who know how to fit within these models we are creating.”

Sarah Rostock, the first teacher at the E3 School to work with little William Smith, holds a bachelor’s degree in early childhood from another institution and feels strongly about the importance of improving teacher preparation.

“The CASTL training I’m receiving right now is invaluable,” said Rostock. “They focus on building strong relationships with children and supporting peer relationships. They have an ingenious way of helping teachers look at a child and understand where they are. I’ve never had these core skills until now.”


Cover photo by Sarah Harris. Contributing writers Richard Alblas and Lynn Bell