Teacher reading to preschool students

All the Pieces in Place

by Lynn Bell

A line of new research in early childhood education in the 1970s brought youngsters into Ruffner Hall each morning to play and learn. The child development center served as a Curry School observation and training laboratory and remained active for more than a decade after moving into nearby Lambeth House.

Yet, the important work conducted in the preschool was mere dabbling compared to the explosion of research and development around young child learning that has occurred at Curry over the past two decades—a trend that has paralleled increased public interest in early childhood education, followed by state and federal investments.

U.Va.’s Curry School of Education is the nation’s—if not the world’s—leading place for truly inspired, innovative work in early childhood education research

Today, the Curry School hosts a remarkably diverse program of research, development, and outreach focused on improving the social and academic success of young children. The school’s work ranges from assessments of children’s school readiness skills to interventions for teachers and children to curriculum development (for both in- and out-of-school settings) and even covers language development in Latino preschoolers. The school’s research on teacher effectiveness influences preschool education nationally and has attracted international attention as well.

“I don’t know of another school with as much going on in this area as we have,” says Curry School dean Bob Pianta.

Susan Sheridan, director of the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools, agrees: “U.Va.’s Curry School of Education is the nation’s—if not the world’s—leading place for truly inspired, innovative work in early childhood education research. The researchers are both rigorous and visionary, and the impact of their work is unparalleled. No other education school comes close to the Curry School in its influence on early childhood research, teaching and policy,” says Sheridan, who is also George Holmes University Professor of Educational (School) Psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Early Childhood Nexus

Pianta is one of a couple of key scholars responsible for boosting Curry’s early childhood education research onto the national scene. His work on studies of early education funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development led to the development of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System™ (CLASS), an observational tool designed to describe prekindergarten teaching, and its related teacher coaching model, MyTeachingPartner™.

At about the same time Pianta’s NICHD research was heating up, Professor Marcia Invernizzi’s work on early literacy education began drawing national attention. In 1997 she developed PALS—Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening—for assessing young children’s knowledge of important literacy fundamentals, including alphabet recognition, vocabulary, knowledge of letter sounds, and awareness of rhyme. Recent funding from the U.S. Dept. of Education has expanded the project to include Spanish-speaking children in prekindergarten through Grade 3, and PALS is used in a number of states as a key literacy benchmarking tool.

Around these two senior faculty members—and others—an ever-expanding contingent of faculty, doctoral students, and research scientists has gathered to address the learning and developmental needs of young children from birth to Grade 2. For most, the focus is on at-risk youngsters, who because of issues related to under-resourced environments or disabilities enter kindergarten far behind their more-advantaged peers.

“There’s lots of energy here around the topic of educating young children,” says Jason Downer. He is a research associate professor in the Curry School and director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning, or CASTL, at the University of Virginia.

“Kids bring a wide variety of skill levels to elementary school. Our work is aimed to reduce the learning gap and give kids enhanced experiences in early learning settings so they can take advantage of learning opportunities that come later.”

Teaching Young Children

CASTL was founded by Pianta and colleagues in 2006 to advance the quality and impact of teaching through scientific study in education settings. Over the years it has grown into a multi-faceted interdisciplinary research center that has received over $30 million in private and federal funding.

The work of the CASTL team has had a notable impact on both policy and practice in preschool settings across the U.S. Although past standards of preschool education quality focused on classroom safety measures and the number of adults and books in the room, Pianta’s research showed that the drivers of learning are children’s positive experiences with teachers.

The CLASS observational instrument was developed from studies of teaching practices that can be linked to student learning gains. The CLASS not only measures teacher-student interactions in a classroom setting, it also provides data and targets for strengthening those interactions and their effects on students’ knowledge and skills.

Accountability for providing high-quality interactions was written into federal Head Start legislation in 2007, and the CLASS instrument soon became the assessment of choice for tracking and improving interactions with children in every Head Start classroom in the nation. The CLASS is also used for assessing quality in a number of private and state-funded preschool programs.

CASTL has since attracted a diverse cadre of scholars that focus on the scientific study of teaching, including work on adaptions of the CLASS and the MyTeachingPartner coaching model for younger and older students, in-person and online courses for early childhood teachers, assessments and interventions for children displaying challenging behaviors, as well as interventions and curriculum to improve literacy, science and math learning. [See links at end of article to learn more about these projects.] In addition, a well-funded line of development and research of an after-school program curriculum called Minds in Motion looks at improving children’s fine motor skills and executive function, leading to higher in-school achievement.

Special Education

Early childhood special education at the Curry School harkens back to those days of the Curry child development center. Today, the program prepares teachers for working with children birth to age 5. Professors Paige Pullen and Tina Stanton-Chapman teach classes on educating young children with mild to severe disabilities or developmental delays and working with their families.

Stanton-Chapman’s research focuses on social behavior of preschoolers, including those with autism, in classroom settings, and much of her work has addressed Head Start settings. Pullen excels in early literacy development and the prevention and remediation of reading difficulties.

The early childhood special education doctoral program, under the leadership of Stanton-Chapman and Professor Stan Trent, recently received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to prepare more professors who can conduct scientifically based research and prepare undergraduate and graduate students to serve young children with disabilities. The program specifically addresses the racial and ethnic disparities in special education services.

Expanding to Policy Studies

Developing synergies between the research programs at CASTL and the Curry School’s education policy program attracted Daphna Bassok here in 2009. She is an early career professor who works through EdPolicyWorks, a research center at the Curry School examining education policy and the implications for the workforce. She is leveraging big data to examine the effects of early childhood education policies such as universal preschool programs and quality rating systems.

Her recent research documenting substantial changes in kindergarten classrooms between 1998 and 2006 continues to attract media attention. Currently, she is studying impacts of Florida’s Voluntary Prekindergarten Program, which is the nation’s largest state-funded preschool program, on elementary school outcomes such as special education placements, retention and third grade achievement. This fall, she is leading a project with colleagues at EdPolicyWorks and CASTL that will inform the development of Louisiana’s Kindergarten Readiness System.

Chloe Gibbs, an early career professor at EdPolicyWorks who has a joint appointment with the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, is also doing early childhood research with Bassok. Gibbs recently won a national award for her work on the long-term impacts of Head Start as well as the full-day kindergarten trend.

Services for Young Children

Not to be forgotten among all the research studies are the Curry School’s programs that prepare human services professionals to work with young children. For example, students in the speech pathology and audiology program learn to provide speech-language interventions for children ages 2 to 7 and receive supervised practice through the Speech-Language-Hearing Center in the Sheila C. Johnson Center for Human Services. Each year the program sponsors summer camps where graduate students help young children with autism and those who experience articulation and phonological problems.

The McGuffey Reading Center offers diagnostic and intervention services year round to children prekindergarten and older. It also offers  two prekindergarten summer camps that address literacy skills foundational to learning to read and write and a camp to boost literacy skills for children finishing kindergarten and first grade.

The Sheila C. Johnson Center also hosts Curry Autism Spectrum Services to provide assessments for both children and adults suspected of having an autism spectrum disorder. These services are provided through the integrated services of three Curry clinics: The Speech-Language-Hearing Center, the McGuffy Reading Center and the Center for Clinical Psychology Services.

The clinical and school psychology program provides early childhood mental health consultation for some local public and Head Start preschool classrooms. Research assistant professor Amanda Williford is one among a number of Curry faculty members who provide professional development for prekindergarten and kindergarten teachers across the state.

Opportunities in Teacher Preparation

With the broad and deep coverage of young child education, the Curry School is positioned to be a leader in early childhood teacher education at the national level.

Our highly ranked teacher education program offers courses leading to Virginia licensure to teach children from age 3 and up. Yet, we have room to grow the program and could eventually offer preparation for teachers in Head Start and other public and private early childhood programs.

“As the public investment in early education grows, there is a tremendous need for well-trained teachers to staff these expanding programs. So there’s a huge demand for professional early child educators,” Pianta says. “At Curry we have the opportunity to build on our current efforts and reinvent the field of early childhood teacher preparation. We already have strong faculty and some cutting edge tools, including well-tested online courses, to scale up our excellent teacher preparation program’s offerings.”

The only challenge is the cost of launching this new initiative. “I’m quite sure that within a two-year period, we could scale-up a national-level teacher training program for early childhood educators that would not only be the most innovative and contemporary, but also proven-effective for preparing competent teachers who foster early learning,” he adds. “An investment of roughly $1 million would enable the start-up and launch of an effort that could be a difference-maker for tens of thousands of young children.”

The Future

Because the foundational education of young children is so vital to their lifelong wellbeing, the future of the Curry School will undoubtedly see continued expansion around this topic. Much remains to be discovered—about improving teacher effectiveness at large scale, about the effects of state and national education policies, and about the developmental needs of individual children from birth to age 7.

Closing the readiness gap among young children requires a bold mix of innovative thinking, deep subject expertise, and rigorous research. The Curry School has the pieces in place, and the transformation of early childhood education is in capable hands.

More Resources

View individual projects currently underway in the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning.

Learn more about afterschool curriculum designed to help close achievement gaps for early elementary students. This work is currently being developed by David Grissmer and colleagues in the FOCAL Lab.

Read more about PALS

Learn about a ongoing study examining how to best support first-year teachers in kindergarten and early elementary school.

Learn about an ongoing study to develop Latino preschoolers’ language acquisition

Read more about Daphna Bassok’s popular research on how early childhood is changing

Learn about more early childhood research findings at EdPolicyWorks through their working paper series