Researchers advocate teacher training, mentoring to boost preschool results

Governors and federal leaders eager to combat the often disappointing benefits of preschool should rely less on regulations and more on improving teacher quality, according to a new study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Texas, Houston.

Teacher with children

A new report, "Lifting Pre-K Quality," recommends intensive teacher training and mentoring at the preschool level.

The report, “Lifting Pre-K Quality: Caring and Effective Teachers,” is being released this Friday (Oct. 22) at a Washington, D.C., conference for education policy leaders, national associations and researchers. It recommends the implementation of intensive teacher training and mentoring at the preschool level.

The initial boost felt by preschoolers in the Head Start program, the federal government’s popular, $7.2 billion early education initiative for low-income families, disappears by first grade, according to researchers. This fading of early cognitive and social development occurs for most middle-class children as well, according to three other recent investigations conducted at Stanford and Columbia universities and by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Concerned about the drop-off in preschool benefits, policy makers and early education advocates are shifting their attention to a general improvement of preschool quality, often tightening the already centralized regulation of neighborhood preschool programs, the researchers note in their report, available online.

“It’s politically tempting to rely on central rules and mandates to bolster the quality of preschool, but our research shows few consistent benefits for children,” said John Gasko, co-author of the new study and director of state programs at the Children’s Learning Institute, based at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston.

Instead, the researchers identified mentoring and training for preschool teachers as important tools to help them enrich their instructional activities in classrooms and boost the early language and preliteracy skills of 3- and 4–year-olds.

“Despite the state’s fiscal problems, Texas today is able to offer smart mentors and locally-led training efforts with thousands of preschool teachers, devising tasks that challenge our young children and nurture their cooperative social skills,” said Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley professor of education and public policy at the Graduate School of Education and a study co-author. The state of Georgia also has implemented similar preschool improvements statewide, he noted.

Political leaders are focusing new attention to how to cost-effectively improve teachers in the $48 billion preschool enterprise.

President Obama’s economic stimulus package expanded Head Start by another $1.8 billion last year. He is requesting another $9 billion in preschool spending in the current appropriations bill before the Congress, and the monies would flow through state governments. Obama is following the example of his four predecessors in the White House, each of whom has expanded Head Start.

“We know that higher quality preschools yield stronger, sustained gains for young children,” Gasko said. “What’s key is to recognize that central regulation is one little step. The biggest bang comes from determined work with preschool teachers.”