Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Peer Effects in Pre-K Classrooms: Implications for Targeted Vs Universal Pre-K Programs

Thursday, November 12, 2015 : 10:55 AM
Brickell South (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Rebekah Levine Coley, Melissa Kull and Kyle DeMeo Cook, Boston College
As federal, state, and local organizations ramp up their commitment to expanding opportunities for pre-k, a central policy question concerns whether to fund universal pre-k programs that serve all children or targeted programs that focus on disadvantaged children.  One essential lens through which to address this policy issue is a child development perspective.  Extensive literature documents the potential for classroom composition- that is, the characteristics of children in the classroom- to affect individual children’s learning and development, but the vast majority of this work has studied primary or secondary school students.  A very small body of research that has addressed this issue for preschool children, arguing that peer characteristics in preschool classrooms might affect individual children directly, through children’s social interactions with and learning from their peers.  A second model, which has not been directly tested, argues that more skilled peers may allow teachers to provide further enriching material and spend less time on discipline, thereby improving the learning of individual children. 

In this paper we seek to extend prior literature by asking whether peer language and math skills are associated with improvements in (1) individual children’s learning, and (2) teachers’ use of effective instructional practices through the pre-k year.  Data were drawn from the National Center for Early Development and Learning Multistate Study of Pre-Kindergarten, a longitudinal study that follows a randomly selected sample of approximately 1,000 children in six states participating in state-funded pre-k classrooms (Clifford et al., 2005).  Data were derived from pre-k teacher and administrator reports, parent reports, and direct assessments of child functioning and teaching behaviors. Children’s math, expressive language, and receptive language skills were assessed in the fall and spring using well-validated direct assessments; we used these scores to develop classroom composites of peer skills for each child.  Teachers’ instructional quality was assessed through direct observations using the reliable and valid CLASS measure in fall and spring. Prospective cross-lagged path analyses were conducted to examine reciprocal associations between children’s cognitive skills, peers’ cognitive skills, and instructional quality from the fall to spring of pre-k, with models adjusting for a rich set of child, teacher, and classroom covariates.   

Results found evidence of significant peer effects: children in classrooms with more highly skilled peers showed significantly greater improvement in math (.10 SD), receptive language (.07 SD), and expressive language (.04 SD) skills than their peers in classrooms with less skilled peers, adjusting for initial levels of child skills.  Evidence also emerged suggesting that more skilled children support higher quality teaching, with greater peer receptive and expressive language skills predicting improvements over time in teachers’ instructional quality (.16 and .11 SD).  Additional analyses found no evidence that peer effects were moderated by initial levels of individual child skills, suggesting that high and low functioning children benefitted similarly from their peers.  Results have implications for the targeting and clustering of children in pre-k programs, suggesting that efforts to improve the school-readiness skills of disadvantaged children will be enhanced by systems that integrate classrooms.