Advancing early learning starts with knowing how children spend their time in classrooms – Early Learning Network
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Advancing early learning starts with knowing how children spend their time in classrooms

Black male teacher reading to young students

Advancing early learning starts with knowing how children spend their time in classrooms

Decades of evidence show that high-quality early education supports young children’s learning. However, researchers have a hard time pinpointing and measuring exactly which features of early learning programs matter most for children’s gains. Improving measurement of early childhood education experiences can help policymakers, school leaders and educators elevate the quality of early education and help parents make informed choices among early learning options.


In a new research brief, Early Learning Network researchers from six institutions across the U.S. explore lessons learned from one approach to measurement: Fine-grained, time-based measures that capture how young children spend their time in pre-K and kindergarten classrooms.


Time-based measures quantify how much time children spend in different instructional and non-instructional activities, instructional content (e.g., literacy, math), instructional format (e.g., whole group, small group, centers, individual), and in some cases, the frequency with which children experience certain types of dialogues with others (e.g., open-ended questions, multiple turn-exchanges).


Download the brief: “Improving Early Childhood Measurement: Findings from the Early Learning Network Using Measures that Capture How Young Children Spend Their Time.”


Key findings


Using data from the Early Learning Network’s study sites in Boston, Ohio, Nebraska, North Carolina and Virginia, researchers have identified three key findings regarding time-based measures of children’s classroom experiences:


1. Time-based measures show that children’s pre-K and kindergarten experiences are distinctly different.


2. Time-based measures show that learning experiences vary across children in the same classroom and by children’s characteristics, such as race/ethnicity, gender and family income.


3. Evidence is mixed on whether time-based measures predict gains in children’s early learning skills.


Overall, the fine-grained measures revealed stark differences between children’s experiences in pre-K and kindergarten classrooms across the network’s study sites.


“There was notable variation in the learning experiences children were exposed to, even within the same classroom, and based on children’s race and ethnicity, gender and family income,” said Lillie Moffett, postdoctoral researcher, University of Michigan. “This evidence strengthens the case for promoting stronger alignment across grades as a strategy to support equitable learning opportunities and children’s long-term school success.”


In both pre-K and kindergarten, findings across the studies were mixed in terms of whether time children spent in various activities predicted gains in language, literacy, math, executive function and social-emotional learning.


“We are still learning what matters most about how young children spend their time,” said Ashley Adams, co-principal investigator, San Diego State University. “More work is needed to pinpoint the right balance of activities, learning contexts and content for individual children.”


The goal of this research brief is to contribute to the knowledge base on early childhood measurement, and in turn, inform policies and practices that will afford children rich learning experiences in pre-K and in the early schooling years that result in their long-term success.


Further reading

Research strengthens the case for better measurement in early childhood education


The Early Learning Network is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. This work supports the network’s collective goal to improve children’s academic success in pre-K through third grade by identifying research-proven policies and practices that narrow achievement gaps and maintain early learning success.