Early bird catches the worm

Study finds quality preschool and trained teachers key to NAPLAN success

The preschool teacher’s qualifications are a very important factor for children’s outcomes.
New research highlights children’s long-term outcomes when they are exposed to quality early childhood programs with trained teachers. The early bird really does catch the worm, Bedrock Journalist Suzanne KOWALSKI-ROTH writes.

It was early on in a home reading stint a few years ago at primary school that the power of a quality early childhood program became clear.

There were a few children in that kindergarten class who were obviously not that familiar with books or being read to. Then there were others who were well on the way to linguistic mastery. The gaps between the two groups were already wide and it was only kindergarten. No doubt parents and carers play a key role but is it possible to determine the impact of a quality preschool program?

What happens to outcomes further down the track? Do children who attend high quality preschool programs with early childhood trained teachers continue to benefit? Do those who miss out on trained early childhood teachers pay the price academically?

A University of Melbourne study The Early Bird Catches the Worm: The Causal Impact of Preschool Participation and Teacher Qualifications on Year 3 NAPLAN Cognitive Tests by Diana Warren and John P Haisken-DeNew has been the first study of its type in Australia to examine longer term effects of early childhood teacher qualifications on student outcomes.

The study drew on data from the Longitudinal Survey of Australian Children (LSAC) using a sample of 4157 children matched with Year 3 NAPLAN outcomes.

The study found that not only does attendance at preschool have a positive effect on later NAPLAN results but the effect is significant, with preschool attendance equivalent to 10-20 NAPLAN points or 15-20 weeks of schooling at Year 3.

The study’s results “indicate that compared to children who did not attend preschool, Year 3 NAPLAN scores are significantly higher among children whose preschool teacher had either a degree in early childhood education or a diploma level qualification in child care or early childhood education, particularly for the domains of numeracy, reading and spelling”.

Interestingly, when it comes to numeracy, those who had attended preschool with a degree qualified teacher scored an average of 12 points higher, while those with a diploma level qualification scored 17 points higher.

The results for numeracy showed that the impact was greatest at the higher end of NAPLAN results. The study also noted that the benefits of preschool “are most significant among children whose teacher specialised in child care or early childhood education, and in general, children whose preschool teacher had a teaching degree without a specialisation in early childhood education did not benefit as much”.

The study found the preschool teacher’s qualifications to be an important factor with children whose preschool teacher had a degree in early childhood education or a diploma in early childhood education or child care gaining the most from attending preschool.

However, those children whose teacher had only a certificate level qualification or no relevant qualification showed no significant benefit in terms of Year 3 NAPLAN scores.

At the beginning of this year it became mandatory that all children in Australia have access to a high quality early childhood program delivered by a university-trained early childhood teacher in the year before school when they attend services of 25 children or more.

These structural reforms to improve quality are backed by the report’s findings. The writers conclude that the National Quality Standard is likely to “have substantial long-term benefits, particularly for children who would not have had the opportunity to attend a preschool with a suitably qualified teacher if these reforms had not taken place”.

It will be fascinating to watch the developments in this area and what new research will reveal about long-term impacts of quality early childhood education. Will it add to findings like the US HighScope Perry Preschool Program which concluded that quality preschool intervention in a high risk population bought long-term benefits like “higher levels of income, reduced crime rates and higher levels of family stability”.

Will better data bring an inevitable change in focus of government towards investment in quality teachers and pay because it makes much more budgetary sense than paying for prisons or social security burdens down the track?

Although there are many forces who argue against qualified university trained teachers in early childhood, my guess is that once data like this begins coming in we will see a changing community understanding of the importance of dedicated early childhood.

It is a unique opportunity for the profession to use these findings to redefine itself and communicate these results in an ongoing process of education.

Once the community fully understands how quality in early childhood can set children up for academic success then we may begin to see an accompanying rise in pay, so that it gets to where it needs to be – the same as teachers in schools.