Content-rich instruction and cognitive demand in prek: using systematic observations to predict child gains

February 2022
Michelle Maier, Meghan McCormick, Samantha Xia, JoAnn Hsueh, Christina Weiland, Abby Morales, Marina Boni, Melissa Tonachel, Jason Sachs, Catherine Snow

Currently available measures of PreK classroom quality inconsistently predict gains in children’s outcomes. Extant measures may not capture the full range of instructional practices—including the degree to which children are exposed to rich content and cognitively demanding instruction—that are important for supporting the development of early language and mathematics skills. The current study leverages data from systematic observations of classrooms (N = 51) in public schools and community-based organizations implementing the Boston Public Schools prekindergarten program to create reliable measures of content-rich instruction and cognitive demand and explore associations between these constructs and gains in children’s (N = 378) language and mathematics skills during PreK. Findings from descriptive analyses revealed that classrooms used content-rich and cognitively demanding practices at moderate levels, and classrooms with higher levels of intervention fidelity generally used higher-quality practices. Classrooms with higher percentages of Black students scored lower on observed cognitive demand. Results from multi-level models revealed that content-rich instruction consistently predicted gains in mathematics skills. There were stronger, positive associations between both content-rich instruction and cognitive demand and gains in mathematics skills for children who started the year with stronger mathematics skills. Neither of the constructs predicted gains in language skills. There was no consistent evidence that associations between either of these constructs and gains in mathematics and language skills varied by children’s race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or home language. Findings demonstrate that further work
to measure and provide supports for exposure to rich instructional content in PreK is warranted.