Symposium 4:Concepts and measures of ECEC quality across cultures: What is universal?

Symposium Abstract

Chair: Saskia van Schaik

Discussant: Joana Cadima       

High quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) is deemed to benefit children’s development (Melhuish, 2011). However, though measures are applied universally, universal consensus on the definition of quality has not been reached yet (Ishimine & Tayler, 2014).

The three papers in this symposium explore possible universal and cultural-specific aspects of ECEC quality. Through combining quantitative and qualitative measures, the papers aim to provide more insight into the methodological issues of applying universal measures to specific cultural contexts as well as the theoretical issue of defining ECEC quality across cultural contexts.

The first paper discusses cultural differences and similarities in ECEC teachers’ beliefs of different developmental domains across nine European countries. The study discusses shared developmental and educational goals across Europe.

The second paper reports on discussions with ECEC professionals on a widely spread measure of ECEC quality (the CLASS Toddler and Pre-K), to observe and compare the culturally specific pedagogical perspective to the measure’s perspective. The discussions elicit key-features of quality not yet captured by the universal measure.

The last paper discusses the use of qualitative interviews to define a missing aspect of ECEC quality; support of group processes. This missing aspect of ECEC quality is then compared to a widely spread measure (CLASS Toddler).

Altogether, the discussion will center on the advantages and disadvantages of applying universal definitions and measures to culturally specific contexts. In addition, this symposium shows how applying one measure to diverse cultural contexts, yields new insights into the definition of ECEC quality.

Paper 1: Teachers’ beliefs about future-oriented developmental and educational goals in ECEC: A comparison between nine European countries

Martine Broekhuizen, Thomas Moser, Paul Leseman, Edward Melhuish, Giulia Pastori, Konstantinos Petrogiannis

Teachers’ beliefs about what constitutes high quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) are acknowledged as important contributors to ECEC policy development. However, research shows that these beliefs and ideas might differ based on teachers’ cultural background (Friendly, Doherty, & Beach, 2007).

From a relativist perspective, ECEC quality is sometimes described as a value-laden concept of which the meaning is dependent on context and time, which limits cross-cultural comparisons (Moss & Pence, 1994; Tobin, 2005). However, despite these contextual differences, it has also been argued that there are certain (cross-national) similarities (Rogoff, 2003).

Specifically the existence of values concerning children’s development and learning have been argued to form the foundation of the concept of quality which could inform policy and practice (Balaguer, 2004; NAEYC, 1991, 2006; The United Nations Convention, 1989).

This paper considers specifically the future-oriented developmental and educational goals that teachers consider to be important to stimulate in ECEC. First, we examined whether we could define developmental domains that could be validly compared across nine European countries. Second, we investigated differences in teachers’ ratings of these domains between the nine countries.

The study is part of the larger European CARE project. Participants in this questionnaire study (N = 2884, Mage = 43 years, 95% female) were teachers from nine European countries (England, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, and Portugal). Data were collected in the spring and summer of 2015.

Questions were composed and extensively discussed by researchers from the nine countries. Teachers rated the importance of these questions for two age groups: Children under three years and children between three and six years. Multi-group confirmatory factor analyses showed that the questions could be divided into seven developmental domains that could be validly compared across countries (i.e., measurement equivalence).

These domains are interpersonal skills, positive attitudes towards diversity, pre-academic skills, learning related skills, physical-motor skills, emotion regulation, and openness to learning. Finding measurement equivalence illustrates that we have a common understanding about several specific developmental and educational goals across Europe.

Teachers rated the specific developmental and educational domains as more important for older children than younger children. This was most strongly the case for stimulating children’s pre-academic skills, followed by learning-related skills. In addition, whereas teachers in Greece, Poland and Portugal score relatively high across both age ranges on children’s pre-academic skills, teachers in Finland, Norway, Germany and the Netherlands score relatively low.

The patterns of the domains within countries are rather similar across countries. ‘Soft’ interpersonal, emotional and personal skills are deemed more important than ‘hard’ pre-academic skills for both age ranges in all countries. The difference between ´soft´ and ´hard´ skills was less strong for children between age three and six, although it was still apparent in some countries (e.g., Finland and Norway).

In the presentation we will also explore relations between the teachers’ ratings and several background variables (e.g., type of ECEC, years of experience in ECEC, working with poor vs. non-poor parents, etc.), and whether these relations are comparable in the different countries.

Paper 2: A critical cultural approach to CLASS. The voice of Italian ECEC teachers

Giulia Pastori, Valentina Pagani, Susanna Mantovani

A rising body of research has documented the crucial role played by ECEC attendance, however, the extent to which ECEC can exert these positive benefits is closely linked to the quality of the ECEC provision: early childhood education matters, but only high quality ECEC makes a difference (Sylva et al., 2004).

This issue has drawn educational researchers’ attention and the interest in monitoring quality of ECEC has resulted in the development of several measures to assess it (Ishimine & Tayler, 2014; Grammatikopoulis et al., 2015). Most of these measures are standard-based tools, often developed in the US, widely used at international level.

The international application of the same evaluation measures, despite carrying some advantages, may also leads to pitfalls, especially if the cultural complexities of cross-cultural use of these instruments, their cultural consistency and ecological validity, are not taken into account (Dahlberg, Moss & Pence 2007; Tobin et al., 2009; Vandenbroeck & Peeters, 2014).

This topic has received only marginal attention in literature and few recent studies (Ishimine & Tayler, 2014) discuss and argue the problematic validity of instruments migrating out of their cultural cradle.

First findings will be presented from the Italian part of an international study – set within the research framework of the European project CARE – aimed to address this gap, focussing on the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS Toddler and Pre-K versions, La Paro et al., 2012; Pianta et al., 2008), one of the most internationally widespread assessment instruments, originally developed to assess daily interactions between teachers and children in the US.

National ECEC experts and teachers have been involved in sustained and focused observations and dialogues, using the CLASS tool, its dimensions, indicators and behavioural markers, as a lens and frame to observe and compare  the perspective of the tool to the local-cultural and pedagogical perspective. Elements of continuity and differences between these perspectives were recognized and key-features of the teacher-child relationship not captured by the CLASS were elicited.

Preliminary findings suggest that the CLASS, rather than being assumed as a tool valid to evaluate the quality of teacher-child interactions across cultures, can be a powerful highlighter of different cultural viewpoints on quality and pedagogy in ECEC settings, a stimulus to compare and contrast local theories with the values and the cultural models embedded in the instrument, through an «intercultural dialogue» supported by and with the instrument itself.

Results offer interesting insights into a methodological reflection on the international use of standardized evaluation tools and into a theoretical reflection on universal vs culture-related views on education and quality.

As it will be argued, while it is appropriate to recognize the continuity and size of agreements between different countries and cultures, it is as strategic to emphasize the variety of local cultures of children’s education and question a rigid universalistic idea of educational standards of quality: «the diversity of cultural ways within a nation and around the world is a resource for creativity and the future of humanity» (Rogoff, 2003, p.18).

Paper 3: ECEC quality: existing domains and the support of group processes

Saskia van Schaik, Paul Leseman, Mariette de Haan

High ECEC quality is often defined as reflecting a setting where teacher-child relationships are warm, sensitive and supportive (Philips & Lowenstein, 2011). This widely spread definition and accompanying measures are often based on US dyadic adult-child attachment models, raising questions about cross-cultural applicability and possible areas of enrichment (Burchinal, 2010; Ishimine & Tayler, 2014). For example, the measures tend to focus on teacher-child interactions and do not specifically address teacher-group relationships and interactions (Burchinal, 2010; Kutnick et al., 2007).

However, a key feature of ECEC is the fact that teachers daily interact with groups of children and children interact with each other in these group settings (Fabes, Hanish, & Martin, 2003; Kutnick et al., 2007; OECD, 2011).     

Through semi-structured interviews with teachers and classroom observations, a previous study found that Moroccan-Dutch and Turkish-Dutch teachers had strong beliefs on group processes and showed more support of group processes compared to their Dutch peers (Van Schaik, Leseman, & Huijbregts, 2014). Based on these findings, the current study explored the possibility of adding the observation measure Support of group processes to the measure of ECEC quality using the CLASS-Toddler (La Paro, Hamre, & Pianta, 2012). 

Among 37 ECEC classrooms, 37 teacher’s and 120 two-to- four-year-old children’s interactions were observed during two different staged play episodes. Quality was rated using the CLASS Toddler, the newly developed measure of Support of group processes and a newly developed measure of children’s Collaborative play. Teachers were given a set of play materials (pretend play kitchen tools and constructive play train tracks) and asked to play with a group of children as they would normally do.

Using structural equation modelling, first the  measurement invariance of both newly developed scales between the two play episodes was studied. Second, a two-level model was built to investigate the convergent and discriminant validity of Support of group processes compared to the existing CLASS domains.

In this model, at the classroom level, the prediction of children’s collaborative play by the two CLASS domains (Emotional and behavioral support and Engaged support for learning), Support of group processes, group size during the activity and, percentage of non-native Dutch children in the classroom was tested. At the child level, children’s age, cognitive ability and sociability were added as predictors of collaborative play.

First, scalar invariance was confirmed for both newly developed scales and factor analyses showed good internal consistency of both scales. On average, low to medium support of group processes was found among the classrooms as well as low to medium collaborative play.

Second, both convergent and discriminant validity were found as Support of group processes was related to both CLASS domains and to children’s Collaborative play, while both CLASS domains were not related to children’s Collaborative play. 

The discussion will focus on using mixed methods to define elements of classroom quality that have not been studied elaborately yet and compare them to existing measures. This also raises the issue of applying universal measures to culturally specific contexts.