Measuring Up to Early Learning Ideals

Topics: Assessment and Evaluation, Equity and Diversity, Early Childhood, Pre-K–3

Families, educators, and policymakers recognize that high-quality early learning experiences lay the foundation for success in school and in life. Yet despite that consensus about the importance of these experiences, there is often a lack of agreement about what constitutes quality in early learning and how to measure it.

In addition, greater awareness of racial injustice has presented an opportunity to look at the purpose, means, and impact of quality measurement in our public systems with fresh eyes to ensure that all children are able to thrive in these environments.

A new publication from the Trust for Learning, “Measuring the Quality of Early Learning Environments,” lays out a vision for how education leaders should assess the quality of early childhood programs, using approaches rooted in equity and the science of child development. The new resource is based on the Trust’s Principles of Ideal Learning, a framework that outlines what high-quality early childhood programs look like in practice.

Guided by a work group of early childhood experts, this two-part report brings new ideas for leaders to consider when evaluating programs that serve young children and families.

What Makes an Environment Ideal?

Developed by early childhood experts and supported by child development research, the Principles of Ideal Learning identify nine fundamental elements of early childhood environments that promote children’s development:

  1. Decision-making reflects a commitment to equity.
  2. Children construct knowledge from diverse experiences to make meaning of the world.
  3. Play is an essential element of young children’s learning.
  4. Instruction is personalized to acknowledge each child’s development and abilities.
  5. The teacher is a guide, nurturing presence, and co-constructor of knowledge.
  6. Young children and adults learn through relationships.
  7. The environment is intentionally designed to facilitate children’s exploration, independence, and interaction.
  8. The time of childhood is valued.
  9. Continuous learning environments support adult development.

Taken together, these principles lay out how providers can build ideal learning environments that enable children to thrive—a sort of “North Star” to help educators reflect on their practice and inform public policy.

Leading With Equity

Central to the “Measuring the Quality of Early Learning Environments” report is the belief that an early childhood program can’t be considered high-quality without equity of access, experience, and opportunity for all children and families.

Historical and ongoing inequities require that quality measurement systems incorporate equity considerations at all levels, from what’s measured, to how it is measured, to how the information is used. The first part of the guide shows how decisions regarding each of these issues can have significant implications for addressing or exacerbating inequities within programs and systems.

What’s Measured

Most quality measurement systems are based on a discrete set of quality measures, yet many factors can affect program quality. Regulations, funding decisions, and technical assistance can all influence the quality of a program.

An equity-focused measurement approach should capture multiple elements that promote children’s development and recognize the different types of skills and strengths that children and families bring to their experience, the report says. Such an approach should also incorporate the degree to which race, culture, language, and biases associated with these factors play out in the elements measured.

To help address these factors, educators might wish to ask themselves:

  • What data might be needed to contextualize quality information (e.g., characteristics of children, funding, staff)?
  • Do measurements capture not only levels of quality but also variability across populations defined by race, language, culture, or disabilities?

These questions can help guide measurement systems to capture dimensions of equity across groups of children.

How Quality Is Measured

It is also important to consider the methods and processes used to collect measurement data. For example:

  • What types of tools or processes (e.g., observation, surveys, monitoring, self-assessments) are used in data collection?
  • What instruments are appropriate for the diversity of staff and families in our program?

Many early childhood quality measures require observers to monitor and record the presence or absence of certain activities and behaviors with children over a set period of time. But bias can creep into these observations. Unless explicitly trained not to do so, observers will interpret teacher and child behavior in the context of their own experiences, pedagogical expectations, biases, and culture.

As a result, the report cautions against an overreliance on observational measures and suggests that observation be balanced by the voices of families, children, and educators who have the most direct experience with early learning programs when assessing their quality.

How the Information Is Used

Lastly, bringing an equity perspective to decision-making about the use of measurement is important to ensure that teachers and programs are well supported and that systems do not unintentionally favor certain populations. A few questions to consider include:

  • Have we been transparent about how the data will be used?
  • What resources need to be put in place to ensure that the data collected is actionable?
  • Will staff be engaged in the process of understanding and interpreting data and reflecting on its meaning?

The report notes that while it is important to have accountability in public early childhood systems, the tendency to link quality measurement to incentives or sanctions can present challenges. This is because most measures have been developed for research or program improvement purposes rather than accountability.

The publication includes questionnaires to help guide educators and policymakers in their decision-making. Trust for Learning hopes principals, administrators, and systems leaders will use these tools in their efforts to build strong and equitable measurement approaches.

Using the Framework

The second part of the guide demonstrates how educational leaders can use the ideal learning framework to inform a holistic approach to quality measurement. It provides an overview of the current state of measurement for each of the nine principles of ideal learning and gives examples of measurement tools that might be used to capture elements of each.

For example, the report notes that children learn through observation, experimentation, and participation with the materials, resources, and people around them. According to the second principle (children construct knowledge from diverse experiences to make meaning of the world), quality reflects the extent to which children’s interests drive their learning experiences. In ideal learning programs, the environment and the teacher support children’s sense of curiosity and agency to promote active exploration and learning.

Several measures capture elements of this principle, often addressing the nature of the dialogue between children and teachers and how that dialogue nurtures children’s exploration of, and expansion upon, ideas.

Some measures also explore the use of different modalities to support learning, but there are still gaps in the measurement of this principle. Few measures take a holistic view of child development and explicitly assess the degree to which children are actively engaged in constructing their learning experiences across multiple domains of development.

Educators might wish to prioritize specific principles and select the tools that best represent their needs. For example, leaders wishing to focus on Principle 3 (play is an essential element of young children’s learning) can find illustrative examples of measures that reflect that principle. The tools highlighted examine the availability and organization of resources inside the classroom and outside to support deep, interactive, and creative play, as well as the teacher’s role in facilitating independent and cooperative play that extends learning.

How you measure the quality of early learning is nearly as important as measuring it in the first place. With the available tools and methods, you can dig deeper into each of the nine principles of early childhood environments and explore your school’s options to guide program improvement.

Chrisanne Gayl is chief strategy and policy officer at Trust for Learning and has more than 20 years of experience in policymaking at the federal, state, and local levels.