Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 2003
Vol. 60
No. 7

Improving Early School Success

Improving instructional quality rather than assessing student readiness is a better way to promote student performance in the early grades.

Improving Early School Success - thumbnail
For the past 10 years, we have been involved in several large-scale research efforts related to schooling and young children. This work, conducted in partnership with schools and school systems, has involved large numbers of teachers, administrators, families, and young children across the country. Findings from these studies shed light on two central questions in early education: How can we understand and assess children's readiness for school? and What is the quality of the classroom settings and teaching practices that we provide to young children?

School Readiness

The relationships that children have with adults and other children in families, child care, and school programs provide the foundation for their success in school (Pianta & Walsh, 1996; Rimm-Kaufman & Pianta, 2001). Children's interactions with adults and more competent peers support their language and literacy development, cognitive functioning, emotional development, and social competence. As a basis for our research, we have adopted the following contextual definition of readiness:Children are ready for school when, for a period of several years, they have been exposed to consistent, stable adults who are emotionally invested in them; to a physical environment that is safe and predictable; to regular routines and rhythms of activity; to competent peers; and to materials that stimulate their exploration and enjoyment of the world and from which they derive a sense of mastery. These factors alone would be better indices of readiness for school than any measurable aspect of child performance. (Pianta & Walsh, 1996, p. 34)
These criteria differ from more common definitions that locate a child's skills (or problems) within the child. In our definition, educators can best understand readiness as a property of a system that involves the child interacting with adults, peers, and other resources.
Definitions are important because perceptions of the ways in which children develop can shape decisions about programs and policies related to early schooling (Rimm-Kaufman & Pianta, 1999; Rimm-Kaufman, Pianta, & Cox, 2000). For example, many educators face the question of how to assess children's readiness for school. Following the assumption that readiness skills are located within the child, most schools use assessments that focus on the child's demonstration of certain discrete skills—for example, the ability to name letters or numbers, or knowledge of vocabulary. These assessments, however, measure only a small sample of young children's knowledge and skills and account for only about 25 percent of the differences among children when they reach school (La Paro & Pianta, 2001). If we understand that children's skills are embedded in interactions and relationships, then assessment of readiness takes a different course and may focus on observations of the child's interactions in home and school settings (Love, Logue, Trudeau, & Thayer, 1992; Pianta & Harbers, 1996) and the qualities of those settings (Bryant, Clifford, Early, Howes, & Pianta, 2002).
Concern over child competence and school readiness is a frequent theme of conversations for parents (Is my child ready?), for teachers (How can we tell whether these children are ready for school?), and for communities (How can we better use resources to improve children's readiness?). These questions assume that we know what readiness is, that we can measure readiness, and that such measurements accurately predict how well the child will perform in school (Meisels, 1999). Our research findings can help us examine these assumptions.

Kindergarten Teachers' Views of Readiness

In fall 1995, we surveyed a national sample of more than 3,500 kindergarten teachers, asking them to identify problems or challenges in children's adjustment to kindergarten (Rimm-Kaufman et al., 2000). These teachers reported that about one-third of the students in their classrooms had some problems making the transition to school and about one-fifth of the students had difficult adjustments marked by serious concerns.
We then asked teachers to identify the specific problems demonstrated by children in their classrooms who were not making good adjustments to school. We asked them to identify whether half of the class or more showed various types of problems during the first few weeks of school. The results demonstrate the scope of teachers' concerns and the skills that they valued in entering students.
A total of 46 percent of the kindergarten teachers reported that at least half of the students in their classes had difficulty following directions. Other problems that teachers most frequently reported for half of the class or more included lack of academic skills (reported by 36 percent of teachers), a disorganized home environment (35 percent), difficulty working independently (34 percent), lack of a formal preschool experience (31 percent), difficulty working as part of a group (30 percent), poor social skills (20 percent), immaturity (20 percent), and communication problems (14 percent). All of these rates were higher for teachers from urban districts, districts with high rates of minority students, and districts with high rates of family poverty. Assuming the validity of kindergarten teachers' judgment about the nature and level of students' difficulties in their classrooms, this survey suggests that children already have an unacceptably high rate of problems when they enter kindergarten.
These findings highlight both social/behavioral and academic skills as key facets of children's adjustment in kindergarten. Other studies have found similar results in surveys of kindergarten teachers (Love et al., 1992) and parents (U.S. Department of Education, 1993). Thus, although kindergarten teachers clearly value academic skills, they also place strong emphasis on children's social and task-oriented skills as indicators of their readiness for school. Such skills—for example, following directions, working independently for short periods of time, and working as part of a group—determine the child's teachability.
The kindergarten teachers in our study believe that if a child comes to school with “teachability skills,” then she or he will profit from the instructional environment that the teacher offers. Not surprisingly, these teachers also identified the lack of formal preschool experiences and a disorganized home environment as problems for many children in their classrooms, reflecting the teachers' belief that home and child care settings contribute in both positive and negative ways to the development of teachability.

Readiness Assessments' Ability to Predict School Success

The term readiness connotes a link to the future. Assessments of readiness are only useful if they can help us predict future problems and implement effective interventions to prevent these problems (Meisels, 1999).
We conducted a meta-analysis (La Paro & Pianta, 2001) of 70 longitudinal studies that had involved a total of more than 3,000 children and that reported information about how well assessments predicted children's social/behavioral and academic/cognitive competence during the transition to school (from preschool to kindergarten and from kindergarten to 1st and 2nd grade). We looked only at studies that had assessed a child on a set of skills in preschool and then assessed the same child again in kindergarten, 1st grade, or 2nd grade on an identical or a similar set of skills. We also divided the assessments into those that tested performance in cognitive/language development (including literacy skills, intellectual functioning, and knowledge of vocabulary, colors, and fine motor skills) and those that assessed social competence or problem behavior (cooperation with peers or adults, following directions, attention, aggression, and so on). This large-scale analysis enabled us to judge whether, in general, preschool readiness assessments accurately predict later functioning.
Results of the analysis showed that assessments of preschool children's functioning in the two broad areas of academic/cognitive and social/behavioral development predicted only a small to moderate portion of variability in similar outcomes in the early school years. Across these studies, the average correlation of a child's functioning in the academic/cognitive area from preschool to the early elementary grades was 0.43. For the social/behavioral area, the average preschool-early grades correlation was 0.32. The correlations reported in individual studies varied widely, from lows under 0.10 to highs in the 0.70 range.
Squaring these average correlations indicated that preschool readiness assessments predicted only about 20 percent of the variability in children's academic/cognitive performance in school. Assessments of social readiness in preschool were even less effective, predicting approximately 10 percent of the variability in children's social performance in school (La Paro & Pianta, 2001).
These results provide little support for the usefulness of preschool assessments as predictors of later functioning. Educators should be cautious about implementing a readiness assessment program without paying careful attention to the quality of the assessment. They should evaluate the assessment's effectiveness for prediction and intervention, decide whether the purposes for which it is intended logically match the purposes for which it was designed, and use highly trained professionals to administer the assessment.
Because readiness assessments and readiness concepts, as currently reflected in practice, are very limited, approaches to enhancing early school success may be more effective if they focus on the broader issues of school transition rather than the readiness of individual children. Policy-makers' recognition of the need for a more comprehensive approach is perhaps one reason for the growth in publicly funded prekindergarten programs, interest in curriculum development and continuity from preK to elementary school, and increased attention to the kinds of transition programming and planning that better link families, schools, and early childhood settings.
The importance of effective transition programs brings us to our work on another key aspect of early schooling: the quality of classroom settings and teaching practices. Improving this aspect of early childhood programming can more directly affect student performance.

Classroom Quality and Teaching Practices

We have been involved in developing and conducting extensive observational assessments of classroom environments in prekindergarten, kindergarten, and 1st grade settings. These studies took a comprehensive approach to describing aspects of children's early education classroom environments.
In two longitudinal studies—the Study of Early Child Care (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2002; Pianta, La Paro, Payne, Cox, & Bradley, 2002) and the National Center for Early Development and Learning's (NCEDL) six-state prekindergarten study (Bryant et al., 2002)—we observed large numbers of prekindergarten and early elementary school classrooms. In all, these observations took place in more than 2,000 classrooms from prekindergarten to 1st grade.
We scheduled all of these observations for days and times when the teachers reported that the most instruction occurred. We scheduled observations outside of time spent in such non-academic activities as music, gym, recess, and lunch.
Across these two major studies, we observed several aspects of the classroom and a specific, “target” child's behavior in the classroom, including the child's behavior, the teacher's behavior toward the child, the setting in which the child worked, and the overall classroom environment. We focused on observations of specific aspects of the classroom setting that research has shown to affect some aspect of child competence.
The observers coded some of these aspects on a minute-to-minute basis (for example, the activity being offered, the teacher's instructional behaviors, the instructional setting, and the child's engagement) and other aspects at a more global level using ratings of the environment. In all observations, observers started the coding at the beginning of the school day and continued it for at least half of the day. In some cases (in the NCEDL study), the observation was repeated on a second occasion. This descriptive research on early education classrooms yielded two major conclusions.

Early Education Classrooms Vary Widely

The first conclusion we drew from this work was that early education classrooms vary widely in the activities in which children participate and in the quality of the classroom environment. In each grade, across all classrooms, we saw the entire range reflected for nearly all of the activities observed. For example, in coding literacy activities in kindergarten classrooms, we saw some classrooms in which teachers offered no literacy activities during the half-day observation, and other rooms in which children were exposed to nothing but literacy activities.
We found a similar pattern for other activities, such as noninstructional activity, whole-group activity, and individual activity. In some classrooms, teachers never taught children in a whole group, whereas teachers in other classrooms used the whole-group mode of instruction all day. In some classrooms, the observer waited more than 35 minutes from the start of the day before he or she could record any activity; in other rooms, children were busy from the start of the day onward.

Classrooms Are Socially Supportive but Academically Passive

Despite the exceptional variability in activities, an overall picture emerged from our observational studies of the typical early education classroom: whole-group instruction, a fairly positive social environment, and somewhat low levels of productivity and engagement in academic activities. This picture was consistent from prekindergarten to 1st grade. (Of course, many individual classrooms were exceptions to this general pattern.)
For example, more than 20 percent of the 1st grade classrooms observed were rated poor on the level and quality of literacy experience offered to children. In these classrooms, children did not, for a morning-long observation, receive exposure to a variety of literacy input (such as storytelling, phonetic activities, or listening to a story being read to them). If they were exposed to literacy, it was often a single activity for a very short time.
Across grades, observers also rated the typical classroom below the midpoint on productivity. Students spent a lot of time waiting for the teacher or for a scheduled activity, and the teacher spent a lot of time managing or preparing materials instead of actually performing a learning activity. Teachers often sat at their desks while children worked.
We can characterize these early education environments as socially positive but instructionally passive. Despite being generally well-organized, busy places, these classrooms appeared low in intentionality—directed, designed interactions between children and teachers in which teachers purposefully challenged, scaffolded, and extended the children's skills. Factors commonly used to regulate classroom quality—such as teacher education or class size—bore little relation to these observations of quality (NICHD, 2002).

Implications for Policy and Practice

Given the relatively unreliable nature of the assessments designed to address young children's readiness for school, educators may look to improve young children's school success by addressing the quality of their early-grades classrooms rather than by addressing readiness issues through tests or screenings.
The large-scale research efforts described here suggest that early childhood educators have reached consensus on the need to provide a warm and sensitive social environment for young children in classrooms. But the variation in classroom experience also reflects a lack of consensus on broader issues: What should we teach young children, and how? Clearly, we need to define an appropriate instructional curriculum and provide professional development to teachers in how to deliver that curriculum through rich, active, feedback-producing interactions that offer children opportunities to think, solve problems, and actively practice skills.
Currently, no state or locality that we can identify has a mechanism that links education policies (for example, accountability assessments or professional development systems) to the actual instructional or social experiences of children in classrooms. We believe that the widespread and systematic use of classroom observation systems can provide crucial information on the actual educational experiences offered to children, which in turn can be linked to accountability frameworks. A systematic, programmatic, and long-term focus on observed classroom quality and practices is fundamental to improving student outcomes—especially for young children, whose developing skills are so deeply embedded in their interactions with teachers and one another.

Bryant, D., Clifford, R., Early, D., Howes, C., & Pianta, R. (2002, November). What is prekindergarten? Preliminary findings from a six-state prekindergarten study. Seminar conducted at the meeting of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, New York, NY.

La Paro, K. M., & Pianta, R. C. (2001). Predicting children's competence in the early school years: A meta-analytic review. Review of Educational Research, 70(4), 443–484.

Love, J. M., Logue, M. E., Trudeau, J. V., & Thayer, K. (1992). Transition to kindergarten in American schools. Portsmouth, NH: U.S. Department of Education.

Meisels, S. J. (1999). Assessing readiness. In R. C. Pianta & M. Cox (Eds.), The transition to kindergarten: Research, policy, training, and practice (pp. 39–66). Baltimore: Brookes.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Early Child Care Research Network. (2002). The relation of global first-grade classroom environment to structural classroom features and teacher and student behaviors. The Elementary School Journal, 102(5), 367–387.

Pianta, R. C., & Harbers, K. (1996). Observing mother and child behavior in a problem-solving situation at school entry. Journal of School Psychology, 34, 307–322.

Pianta, R. C., La Paro, K. M., Payne, C., Cox, M. J., & Bradley, R. (2002). The relation of kindergarten classroom environment to teacher, family, and school characteristics and child outcomes. The Elementary School Journal, 102(3), 225–238.

Pianta, R. C., & Walsh, D. J. (1996). High-risk children in schools. New York: Routledge.

Rimm-Kaufman, S. E., & Pianta, R. C. (1999). Patterns of family-school contact in preschool and kindergarten. School Psychology Review, 28(3), 426–438.

Rimm-Kaufman, S. E., & Pianta, R. C. (2001). An ecological perspective on the transition to kindergarten. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 21(5), 491–511.

Rimm-Kaufman, S. E., Pianta, R. C., & Cox, M. J. (2000). Teachers' judgments of problems in the transition to kindergarten. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 15(2), 147–166.

U.S. Department of Education. (1993). Readiness for kindergarten: Parent and teacher beliefs. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

End Notes

1 The correlation reflects the extent to which the rank order of individuals on the scale is the same across two assessments (for example, a readiness test in preschool and an achievement test in 1st grade). Researchers typically square the correlation as a way to gauge the amount of variability between individuals that the association between these assessments accounts for: The squared correlation can range from 1.0, meaning that the tests are perfect predictors of each other, to 0, meaning the tests have no association with each other.

2 For example, the NICHD Study of Early Child Care, in classrooms from 54 months to 3rd grade, used minute-to-minute codes for literacy, math, and related academic activities, noninstructional activities, and free time; whether the activity was in a whole-group, small-group, or individual setting; the teacher's behavior (positive or disciplinary) toward the child; the child's behavior toward the teacher and peers (positive or negative); and whether the child was engaged in the assigned activity.

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Discover ASCD's Professional Learning Services
From our issue
Product cover image 103033.jpg
The First Years of School
Go To Publication