Louisa Tarullo, director of human services research at Mathematica Policy Research, said the study found children experience better outcomes across a range of skills as the overall quality of preschool instruction increases. For language and reading skills, the instruction has to be at or above a certain threshold. She said the team also discovered children benefit from larger doses of early care and education programs, such as Head Start.
Tarullo said the findings have broad implications for publicly funded early care and education.
Tarullo was a co-author of the study alongside Martha Zaslow. FPG senior scientist Margaret Burchinal led the study.
Zaslow, director of the Office for Policy and Communications of the Society for Research in Child Development at Child Trends, said researchers have studied the relationship between quality and child outcomes for a long time, but this study approached the issue from a different angle. This team focused specifically on the thresholds of quality, features of quality and dosage.
“What this study does that is different is it says, ‘If we ask the question slightly differently, what do we find?’” Zaslow said. “So we asked, ‘What is the strength of the association between quality and child outcomes in different ranges of quality?’”
They found improvements in the upper ranges of quality are most important for child outcomes, she said. To see effects, it’s important to help get programs into the upper range.
“What we’re doing is zeroing in more specifically on aspects of quality that seem to be most important for improving children’s development,” Zaslow said.
Those aspects, she said, proved to be the provision of content aimed at specific areas of children’s development, like vocabulary development.
She said dosage also matters. The number of years a child spends in Head Start matters for their development and so does the time teachers engage in instructional interactions.
Tarullo said this study grew out of an earlier research project that looked at the relationship between higher quality early care and education and child outcomes, a project that indicated the topic deserved further study. That’s how the team came to conduct their study, during which they analyzed federal and state data sets to answer the questions, Tarullo said.
Dave Shaw, the communications director of FPG, said the study points to important areas of inquiry.
“How much time in preschool is necessary for children to make gains and what level of instructional quality will enable children to benefit? For FPG senior scientist Margaret Burchinal, who led the study, these are important questions to understand, and, moving forward, FPG will continue to guide the field through its research and its application of that research.”
Zaslow, too, said she believes the study to have important implications.
“I think the study underscores the importance of continuing efforts that are happening at the national level and also at a state level to improve quality and strengthen children’s outcomes, while also providing guidance for such efforts.”