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The relationship between the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale and its revised form and child outcomes: A systematic review and meta-analysis

  • Ashley Brunsek,

    Affiliation Applied Psychology and Human Development, University of Toronto/OISE, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

  • Michal Perlman ,

    Michal.perlman@utoronto.ca

    Affiliation Applied Psychology and Human Development, University of Toronto/OISE, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

  • Olesya Falenchuk,

    Affiliation Applied Psychology and Human Development, University of Toronto/OISE, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

  • Evelyn McMullen,

    Affiliation Applied Psychology and Human Development, University of Toronto/OISE, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

  • Brooke Fletcher,

    Affiliation Department of Gastroenterology, Alberta Children's Hospital, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

  • Prakesh S. Shah

    Affiliations Department of Pediatrics, Mount Sinai Hospital, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Department of Pediatrics, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

The relationship between the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale and its revised form and child outcomes: A systematic review and meta-analysis

  • Ashley Brunsek, 
  • Michal Perlman, 
  • Olesya Falenchuk, 
  • Evelyn McMullen, 
  • Brooke Fletcher, 
  • Prakesh S. Shah
PLOS
x

Abstract

The Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS) and its revised version (ECERS-R) were designed as global measures of quality that assess structural and process aspects of Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) programs. Despite frequent use of the ECERS/ECERS-R in research and applied settings, associations between it and child outcomes have not been systematically reviewed. The objective of this research was to evaluate the association between the ECERS/ECERS-R and children’s wellbeing. Searches of Medline, PsycINFO, ERIC, websites of large datasets and reference sections of all retrieved articles were completed up to July 3, 2015. Eligible studies provided a statistical link between the ECERS/ECERS-R and child outcomes for preschool-aged children in ECEC programs. Of the 823 studies selected for full review, 73 were included in the systematic review and 16 were meta-analyzed. The combined sample across all eligible studies consisted of 33, 318 preschool-aged children. Qualitative systematic review results revealed that ECERS/ECERS-R total scores were more generally associated with positive outcomes than subscales or factors. Seventeen separate meta-analyses were conducted to assess the strength of association between the ECERS/ECERS-R and measures that assessed children’s language, math and social-emotional outcomes. Meta-analyses revealed a small number of weak effects (in the expected direction) between the ECERS/ECERS-R total score and children’s language and positive behavior outcomes. The Language-Reasoning subscale was weakly related to a language outcome. The enormous heterogeneity in how studies operationalized the ECERS/ECERS-R, the outcomes measured and statistics reported limited our ability to meta-analyze many studies. Greater consistency in study methodology is needed in this area of research. Despite these methodological challenges, the ECERS/ECERS-R does appear to capture aspects of quality that are important for children’s wellbeing; however, the strength of association is weak.

Introduction

A high proportion of children in Canada [1] and the US [2] receive care from someone other than their parents. As a result, increasing attention is being paid to the role of Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) programs in fostering optimal child development. Children who attend ECEC programs of higher quality demonstrate better cognitive [3,4], social [5,6] and emotional [7] outcomes. However, ECEC program quality in the US has been reported to be “mediocre” at best [811]. In addition, more information is needed about the validity of measures of ECEC quality [12]. The Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS, and its revised version, the ECERS-R) is the most widely used assessment of global childcare classroom quality in centre-based programs [1315]. It was developed to reflect the early childhood education field’s concept of Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP), an approach to teaching grounded in research on how young children learn and in what is known about effective early education [16]. As a result, items on the ECERS/ECERS-R assess a variety of aspects that influence the classroom environment, including curriculum, environment, teacher-child interactions, and teaching practices. The ECERS/ECERS-R is often used for research purposes or as a self-assessment tool to guide quality improvement efforts led by licensing or other agencies. Perhaps even more importantly, it is frequently used in high-stake settings such as Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) [17]. In fact, over half of US states use the ECERS-R as part of their QRIS to monitor their state pre-K programs [1719] and to assist in the allocation of public funding to programs [20].

ECEC quality has been conceptualized in terms of structural (e.g., staff/child ratios and aspects of the physical environment that can be regulated) and process (e.g., interactions that occur within the child’s environment) quality [21]. ECEC assessment tools tend to focus on one of these aspects, resulting in a narrower assessment of classroom quality. For example, the Caregiver Interaction Scale [22] focuses on the interaction styles of individual staff with the children under their care. A more recently developed measure, the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) [23] assesses the quality of staff/child interactions at an aggregate, classroom level. A recent systematic review and meta-analysis revealed few associations between the CLASS and child outcomes [24]. The more global nature of the ECERS/ECERS-R may make it a more promising measure of ECEC quality in terms of possible associations with child outcomes.

The ECERS was created as a global measure of quality, designed to measure both structural and process aspects of ECEC environments [25]. A decade later, a revised version, the ECERS-R, was created to accommodate developments in the field related to cultural diversity, family involvement, and children with disabilities [26]. The ECERS and ECERS-R are made up of 37 and 43 items respectively. All items are rated on a seven-point scale. Both versions consist of the following seven subscales: 1) space and furnishings; 2) personal care routines; 3) language-reasoning; 4) activities; 5) interactions; 6) program structure and 7) parents and staff. However, a number of psychometric analyses suggest that the ECERS and ECERS-R are unidimensional measures of quality, providing a total score only [2729]. Other studies have reported a two-factor solution of Appropriate Caregiving and Developmentally Appropriate Activities and Materials for the ECERS [30] and Teaching and Interactions and Provisions for Learning for the ECERS-R [14,31], grouping items into process and structural aspects of the environment.

Despite the ECERS/ECERS-R influential role in policy and research, to our knowledge, a comprehensive review that assesses whether or not the ECERS/ECERS-R is associated with child outcomes has yet to be published. Thus, the objective of this review was to evaluate the associations between ECERS/ECERS-R total scores in classrooms that serve preschool-aged children and children’s concurrent or subsequent outcomes.

We decided to cast a wide net regarding child outcomes in an attempt to capture cognitive, academic, social and emotional outcomes, all of which contribute to children’s wellbeing. Including this array of outcomes, particularly social emotional outcomes (e.g., positive and problem behavior) reflects an understanding of the classroom context having an impact on children that goes “beyond achievement tests” [32]. An examination of the associations between various subscales and factors and child outcomes was also conducted, with a specific focus on the Teaching and Interactions and Provisions for Learning factors and the Language-Reasoning and Interactions subscales, as these areas have been identified as particularly important for children’s development [5,33].

Methods

Types of participants and settings

We restricted our population to classrooms that serve preschool-aged children (age between 30 and 72 months) as these serve the largest number of children in ECEC settings [34,35]. Furthermore, different assessment measures are often required to capture the development of children of different age groups (e.g., infants, toddlers) making it extremely difficult to combine all age groups in one meta-analysis. ECEC settings included child care centers, preschool programs, nursery schools, pre-kindergarten programs, and Head Start programs. Studies that only examined home-based child care or those in which home- and center-based care could not be separated were excluded. The inclusion criteria and rationale are provided in Table 1.

Assessment of classroom quality

We used the ECERS/ECERS-R as a measure of classroom quality for this review. The components of this scale are described above. Though they have slightly different items, a high correlation between the ECERS and ECERS-R [14,20] has been reported and justifies combining the literature across the two versions. This allowed for a synthesis of information across a broader span of time and a larger number of studies. However, as part of this review we did set out to explore whether there is a different pattern of associations between the ECERS and ECERS-R and child outcomes.

Types of studies

English language studies reporting associations in cohort, cross-sectional or longitudinal analyses were included in this review. Studies reporting a statistical link between an aggregate ECEC quality variable that consisted of several measures of quality and child outcomes were only included if the specific effect of ECERS/ECERS-R scores could be separated. The majority of the studies included were peer reviewed. Case-series, reviews, editorials and letters to editors were read to identify articles but were not included in the review.

Outcomes

Child outcomes were operationalized broadly and included measures of children’s cognitive, pre-academic, social, emotional, behavioral, and motor functioning, all of which contribute to children’s overall wellbeing. Outcome measures were based on direct testing of children as well as teacher and parent reports. Measures that focused on dyads (e.g., staff/child attachment) were excluded, as it is difficult to separate “caregiver/program” effects from child characteristics using such measures.

Search strategy

An extensive search of the electronic databases PsycINFO, Medline, and ERIC was conducted for English language studies published before July 3, 2015. Two separate searches were performed within each of the three databases. One combined search terms specific to ECERS/ECERS-R and child outcomes and the other combined search terms related to a number of ECEC quality indicators and child outcomes to capture studies in which the ECERS/ECERS-R was not the primary focus of the study. Specific keywords used in the electronic searches are provided in supplemental online material, Tables A-D in S1 File. Websites for key databases used in this literature were reviewed to retrieve relevant studies (e.g., Cost, Quality, and Outcomes Study [36]; Early Childhood Longitudinal Study [37]; Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPSE) [38]; Head Start Impact Study (HS) [39]; National Center for Early Development and Learning’s (NCEDL) Multi-State Study of Pre-Kindergarten and State-Wide Early Education Program Study (SWEEP) [40]; Head Start’s Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) [41] and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development) [42]. Finally, reference lists of studies that met our inclusion criteria were manually searched to identify additional relevant studies.

Study selection and data extraction

Decisions about what to search for and what to retain/exclude are key when conducting a systematic review and meta-analysis. In this study, we adopted a comprehensive approach in what we included as part of the systematic review but were more conservative in what we deemed meta-analyzable. This approach resulted in a comprehensive review that represents the existing literature without running the risk of combining studies that were too methodologically different.

The title and abstract of each paper located through the literature searches were reviewed for relevance. Abstracts that were identified as potentially relevant to the current study underwent full-text review to determine if inclusion criteria were met. Relevant child and family characteristics and reported measures of association were extracted using standardized forms. All reviews were conducted by two independent raters with a third member used for arbitration.

Statistical analyses

All eligible studies were included in the systematic review. Data included the following statistics: zero order Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient (r), Beta, unstandardized coefficient, T-Test, partial correlations, F-Ratio, and various effect sizes. For meta-analyses, the Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient (r) or equivalent was used to assess the strength of the association between ECERS/ECERS-R scores and outcome measures (see S2 File). Studies that could be meta-analyzed were drawn from the pool of studies that were eligible for the systematic review. To be meta-analyzed, studies had to use identical operationalizations of the ECERS/ECERS-R and identical child outcome measures. Although there is no empirical basis for requiring a minimum number of studies to conduct a meta-analysis, we set three independent samples as our minimum. To increase homogeneity among studies that were meta-analyzed, and to ensure that children had at least some exposure to the program before outcomes were measured, only studies where a) the authors explicitly stated that children had been in the program for a minimal period of time prior to their assessment b) child pre-scores were available and could be used as a covariate or c) gain scores were provided, were included in meta-analyses. Sixteen of the 21 samples (in 17 studies) that met these inclusion criteria consisted of children who were assessed in the fall and spring, indicating children were in their classrooms for a minimum of 10 months [13,15,27,4352]. Authors of the remaining studies reported that they ensured that children had exposure to the program prior to quality and child outcome assessments [53] for 2 to 24 months [13,24,54]. In addition, only statistics that accounted for covariates (e.g., child and family characteristics) were combined within a single meta-analysis. When different studies reported results based on the same samples, only the study with the largest sample was included in the meta-analysis [55]. Thus, only one coefficient from each sample was included in any one meta-analysis.

Statistical models with quadratic terms assume non-linear associations between the variables. Given that the statistics extracted for most studies only test for linear relationships (correlation coefficients and linear regression coefficients), associations in models using quadratic terms were excluded and only results examining linear relationships were used in the meta-analyses. We used random-effects models for meta-analyses. All meta-analyses were conducted using Comprehensive Meta-Analysis Version 3 software[56]. Statistical heterogeneity was calculated for each meta-analysis using the I2 values [57].

Efforts were made to rate the methodological quality of the studies based on existing measures of study quality (e.g., using the Newcastle-Ottawa scale [43]. However, this effort was deemed unhelpful, as there was little variability between studies, with studies generally being rated as being of poor quality due to the observational nature of this body of research.

Results

Search results

One of the strengths of this study is that the terms used in our initial searches were very broad. Casting a wide net reduced the likelihood that relevant studies were left out of this review. The downside of this strategy is that our searches included a large number of studies that were not relevant for this systematic review/meta-analysis and were therefore dropped during our systematic screening process.

Details of the search results and study selection are provided in Fig 1. Seventy-three studies were included in this review. There were 49 journal articles, 19 reports, one monograph, and four book chapters that reported original analyses. Descriptive information for the 73 studies is presented in S3 File. Several of these studies came from large-scale datasets with the largest number based on the NCEDL’s Multi-State Study and SWEEP study (n = 11) [15,3335,44,5863] and CQO (n = 5) [5,11,15,64,65] databases. Sixteen studies [7,45,46,54,6677] included ECEC programs located outside of the United States (i.e., Bangladesh, Bermuda, Canada, Chile, England, Germany, Portugal, Singapore).

The 73 eligible studies produced 92 samples, as four studies [5,15,59,60] consisted of multiple datasets and seven studies [13,27,58,70,73,78,79] divided their sample into different groups of participants for analyses. Of the 92 samples, 23 samples (20 studies) measured ECERS/ECERS-R and outcomes using a cross-sectional design [5,7,15,35,45,64,66,68,69,7174,77,78,8083]. Sixty-nine samples (55 studies) [4,5,11,13,15,27,29,30,33,34,44,4854,5863,65,67,70,75,76,79,84107]were from studies using a longitudinal design.

Fifty of the 73 studies reported the ethnic composition of their samples. Children were primarily Caucasian, Black or Hispanic. The majority of samples consisted of at-risk children with 18–100% of children coming from low-income families. Nineteen studies did not report children’s risk status. All of the studies had similar numbers of boys and girls. Of the independent samples, the total sample size across all eligible studies consisted of 33,318 preschool-aged children, ranging from 25 to 3584 children (median = 258).

Operationalization of ECERS/ECERS-R

Of the 73 eligible studies, 26 [4,5,7,11,13,15,27,30,46,64,65,6870,7274,77,78,80,84,88,89,98100] used the ECERS and 47 [15,29,3335,44,45,4854,5861,63,66,67,71,75,76,79,8183,8587,9097,101108], used the ECERS-R. Some studies provided total and some provided average scores. Seven studies [4,7,13,64,69,70,84] using the ECERS and 15 studies [29,33,49,50,53,5961,67,81,91,93,102,105,106] using the ECERS-R dropped the ‘Parents and Staff’ subscale from the reported total mean score.

One study [11] used the mean of 5 items, stating that this brief version was highly correlated with the complete ECERS scale. Another [58] dropped the ‘Toileting’ and ‘Parent and Staff’ subscales from the reported total score. Two studies reported the Preschool Appropriate Caregiving (PAC) factor [30,77] and 2 reported the Developmentally Appropriate Activities (DAA) factor [77,99] of the ECERS. Six studies [34,44,63,85,86,107] explored the Provisions for Learning (PL) factor and 10 [34,35,44,62,63,85,86,95,96,107] explored the Teaching and Interactions (TI) factor of the ECERS-R. A few studies explored individual subscales (5 using the ECERS and 6 using the ECERS-R), with Language-Reasoning [15,46,51,87,89,94,99101] and Interactions [15,51,75] investigated most frequently. All studies reported that ECERS/ECERS-R were collected by trained observers.

Outcomes

Across the studies that met our inclusion criteria, associations were reported between the ECERS/ECERS-R and 168 different outcomes (see S4 File for a complete list of outcome measures across all studies). Outcome measures varied substantially in terms of the skill/ability being assessed (e.g., inattention, receptive language, counting task), informant (e.g., child assessment, teacher or parent report), and psychometrics (e.g., standardized norm-referenced measures vs. tasks developed by authors with little or no reliability and validity data reported).

Systematic review

ECERS/ECERS-R total score.

Data extracted from the 73 eligible studies are presented in Tables A-J in S5 File. A snapshot of the results is also provided in Figs 211, which displays the results obtained for only those child outcomes that were used in three or more samples. For each table, each row represents a single sample within a paper and each cell represents the various analyses that were conducted with a specific sample.

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Fig 2. Systematic review of the associations between the ECERS total score, authors A-E and child outcomes.

a Abbreviations: Symbols bolded are significant and positive, symbols bolded and italicized are significant and negative, and symbols in grey are non-significant. Star = Zero Order Pearson’s Correlation, Unfilled circle = Beta, Filled square = Unstandardized Coefficient, Black diamond minus white X = T-Test, Key clover = Partial Correlation, Downward arrow = Effect Size, Filled circle = F-Ratio. aTo improve the readability of these complex diagrams, ten papers[4,46,54,66,67,70,75,82,83,101] that had an outcome that appeared in only that one paper were omitted from this figure. Several analyses from other papers that had idiosyncratic outcomes are also excluded. For a comprehensive display of all of the data for all of the child outcomes see Supplemental Information S4 File.bThis paper is one of a series of Meta-Analyses and Systematic Reviews assessing the relationship between child care quality and children’s outcomes; therefore, superscript letters below are in reference to various large databases that samples in these papers were drawn from. These letters have been kept consistent across the series for our readers. cSamples within papers are described in more detail in S3 File. dAcronyms for child outcomes are listed in S6 File. DCost, Quality and Outcomes Study (CQO, 1993–1994); S8-county region of North-Central Indiana (Year NR); TOtitis Media Study (Year NR); ZColorado QRIS.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0178512.g002

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Fig 3. Systematic review of the associations between the ECERS total score, authors F-Z and child outcomes.

aAbbreviations: Symbols bolded are significant and positive, symbols bolded and italicized are significant and negative, and symbols in grey are non-significant. Star = Zero Order Pearson’s Correlation, Unfilled circle = Beta, Filled square = Unstandardized Coefficient, Black diamond minus white X = T-Test, Key clover = Partial Correlation, Downward arrow = Effect Size, Filled circle = F-Ratio. aTo improve the readability of these complex diagrams, ten papers[4,46,54,66,67,70,75,82,83,101] that had an outcome that appeared in only that one paper were omitted from this figure. Several analyses from other papers that had idiosyncratic outcomes are also excluded. For a comprehensive display of all of the data for all of the child outcomes see Supplemental Information S4 File. bThis paper is one of a series of Meta-Analyses and Systematic Reviews assessing the relationship between child care quality and children’s outcomes; therefore, superscript letters below are in reference to various large databases that samples in these papers were drawn from. These letters have been kept consistent across the series for our readers. cSamples within papers are described in more detail in S3 File. dAcronyms for child outcomes are listed in S6 File. CBermuda Preschool Study (1980); ONational Child Care Staffing Study (NCCSS, 1988.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0178512.g003

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Fig 4. Systematic review of the associations between the ECERS total score (parents and staff subscale not included) and mean of 5 items and child outcomes.

a Abbreviations: Symbols bolded are significant and positive, symbols bolded and italicized are significant and negative, and symbols in grey are non-significant. Star = Zero Order Pearson’s Correlation, Unfilled circle = Beta, Filled square = Unstandardized Coefficient, Black diamond minus white X = T-Test, Key clover = Partial Correlation, Downward arrow = Effect Size, Filled circle = F-Ratio. aTo improve the readability of these complex diagrams, ten papers[4,46,54,66,67,70,75,82,83,101] that had an outcome that appeared in only that one paper were omitted from this figure. Several analyses from other papers that had idiosyncratic outcomes are also excluded. For a comprehensive display of all of the data for all of the child outcomes see Supplemental Information S4 File.bThis paper is one of a series of Meta-Analyses and Systematic Reviews assessing the relationship between child care quality and children’s outcomes; therefore, superscript letters below are in reference to various large databases that samples in these papers were drawn from. These letters have been kept consistent across the series for our readers. cSamples within papers are described in more detail in S3 File. dAcronyms for child outcomes are listed in S6 File. eIdentifying Letters (also referred to as Alphabet Recognition Test, Letter Identification, Letter Knowledge, Letter-Naming Test, Naming Letters). fCounting Task (also referred to as Counting One-to-One, One-One Counting). CBermuda Preschool Study (1980); DCost, Quality and Outcomes Study (CQO, 1993–1994.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0178512.g004

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Fig 5. Systematic review of the associations between the ECERS-R total score, authors A-Hen and child outcomes.

A Abbreviations: Symbols bolded are significant and positive, symbols bolded and italicized are significant and negative, and symbols in grey are non-significant. Star = Zero Order Pearson’s Correlation, Unfilled circle = Beta, Filled square = Unstandardized Coefficient, Black diamond minus white X = T-Test, Key clover = Partial Correlation, Downward arrow = Effect Size, Filled circle = F-Ratio. aTo improve the readability of these complex diagrams, ten papers[4,46,54,66,67,70,75,82,83,101] that had an outcome that appeared in only that one paper were omitted from this figure. Several analyses from other papers that had idiosyncratic outcomes are also excluded. For a comprehensive display of all of the data for all of the child outcomes see Supplemental Information S4 File. bThis paper is one of a series of Meta-Analyses and Systematic Reviews assessing the relationship between child care quality and children’s outcomes; therefore, superscript letters below are in reference to various large databases that samples in these papers were drawn from. These letters have been kept consistent across the series for our readers. cSamples within papers are described in more detail in S3 File. dAcronyms for child outcomes are listed in S6 File. eIdentifying Letters (also referred to as Alphabet Recognition Test, Letter Identification, Letter Knowledge, Letter-Naming Test, Naming Letters). fCounting Task (also referred to as Counting One-to-One, One-One Counting). gIdentifying Numbers (also referred to as Naming Numbers, Number Identification). ANational Center for Early Development and Learning Dataset (NCEDL, 2002, 2004); FGeorgia Early Childhood Study (GECS, 2002); JHead Start Family and Children Experiences Survey (FACES, 1997) Cohort; KHead Start Family and Children Experiences Survey (FACES, 2000) Cohort.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0178512.g005

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Fig 6. Systematic review of the associations between the ECERS-R total score, authors Hes-Z and child outcomes.

aAbbreviations: Symbols bolded are significant and positive, symbols bolded and italicized are significant and negative, and symbols in grey are non-significant. Star = Zero Order Pearson’s Correlation, Unfilled circle = Beta, Filled square = Unstandardized Coefficient, Black diamond minus white X = T-Test, Key clover = Partial Correlation, Downward arrow = Effect Size, Filled circle = F-Ratio. aTo improve the readability of these complex diagrams, ten papers[4,46,54,66,67,70,75,82,83,101] that had an outcome that appeared in only that one paper were omitted from this figure. Several analyses from other papers that had idiosyncratic outcomes are also excluded. For a comprehensive display of all of the data for all of the child outcomes see Supplemental Information S4 File.bThis paper is one of a series of Meta-Analyses and Systematic Reviews assessing the relationship between child care quality and children’s outcomes; therefore, superscript letters below are in reference to various large databases that samples in these papers were drawn from. These letters have been kept consistent across the series for our readers. cSamples within papers are described in more detail in S3 File. dAcronyms for child outcomes are listed in S6 File. eIdentifying Letters (also referred to as Alphabet Recognition Test, Letter Identification, Letter Knowledge, Letter-Naming Test, Naming Letters). fCounting Task (also referred to as Counting One-to-One, One-One Counting). ANational Center for Early Development and Learning Dataset (NCEDL, 2002, 2004); RNortheastern United States sample (Moller and colleagues, 2008; Year NR).

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0178512.g006

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Fig 7. Systematic review of the associations between the ECERS-R total score, authors Hes-Z and child outcomes.

aAbbreviations: Symbols bolded are significant and positive, symbols bolded and italicized are significant and negative, and symbols in grey are non-significant. Star = Zero Order Pearson’s Correlation, Unfilled circle = Beta, Filled square = Unstandardized Coefficient, Black diamond minus white X = T-Test, Key clover = Partial Correlation, Downward arrow = Effect Size, Filled circle = F-Ratio. aTo improve the readability of these complex diagrams, ten papers[4,46,54,66,67,70,75,82,83,101] that had an outcome that appeared in only that one paper were omitted from this figure. Several analyses from other papers that had idiosyncratic outcomes are also excluded. For a comprehensive display of all of the data for all of the child outcomes see Supplemental Information S4 File. bThis paper is one of a series of Meta-Analyses and Systematic Reviews assessing the relationship between child care quality and children’s outcomes; therefore, superscript letters below are in reference to various large databases that samples in these papers were drawn from. These letters have been kept consistent across the series for our readers. cSamples within papers are described in more detail in S3 File. dAcronyms for child outcomes are listed in S6 File. eIdentifying Colors (also referred to as Color Knowledge, Color Naming, Color Naming Task). fIdentifying Letters (also referred to as Alphabet Recognition Test, Letter Identification, Letter Knowledge, Letter-Naming Test, Naming Letters). gCounting Task (also referred to as Counting One-to-One, One-One Counting). ANational Center for Early Development and Learning Dataset (NCEDL, 2002, 2004); FGeorgia Early Childhood Study (GECS, 2002); HEarly Head Start (EHS, 2001–2003 Cohort); NEarly Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS-B, 2001–2006, Birth Cohort); ZColorado QRIS; YBMore at Four North Carolina Study (2003–2004) Cohort; YCMore at Four North Carolina Study (2005–2006) Cohort.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0178512.g007

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Fig 8. Systematic review of the associations between the ECERS-R total score, authors Hes-Z and child outcomes.

aAbbreviations: Symbols bolded are significant and positive, symbols bolded and italicized are significant and negative, and symbols in grey are non-significant. Star = Zero Order Pearson’s Correlation, Unfilled circle = Beta, Filled square = Unstandardized Coefficient, Black diamond minus white X = T-Test, Key clover = Partial Correlation, Downward arrow = Effect Size, Filled circle = F-Ratio. aTo improve the readability of these complex diagrams, ten papers[4,46,54,66,67,70,75,82,83,101] that had an outcome that appeared in only that one paper were omitted from this figure. Several analyses from other papers that had idiosyncratic outcomes are also excluded. For a comprehensive display of all of the data for all of the child outcomes see Supplemental Information S4 File. bThis paper is one of a series of Meta-Analyses and Systematic Reviews assessing the relationship between child care quality and children’s outcomes; therefore, superscript letters below are in reference to various large databases that samples in these papers were drawn from. These letters have been kept consistent across the series for our readers. cSamples within papers are described in more detail in S3 File. dAcronyms for child outcomes are listed in S6 File. ANational Center for Early Development and Learning Dataset (NCEDL, 2002, 2004); NEarly Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS-B, 2001–2006, Birth Cohort); ZColorado QRIS.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0178512.g008

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Fig 9. Systematic review of the associations between the ECERS-R total score, authors Hes-Z and child outcomes.

a Abbreviations: Symbols bolded are significant and positive, symbols bolded and italicized are significant and negative, and symbols in grey are non-significant. Star = Zero Order Pearson’s Correlation, Unfilled circle = Beta, Filled square = Unstandardized Coefficient, Black diamond minus white X = T-Test, Key clover = Partial Correlation, Downward arrow = Effect Size, Filled circle = F-Ratio. aTo improve the readability of these complex diagrams, ten papers[4,46,54,66,67,70,75,82,83,101] that had an outcome that appeared in only that one paper were omitted from this figure. Several analyses from other papers that had idiosyncratic outcomes are also excluded. For a comprehensive display of all of the data for all of the child outcomes see Supplemental Information S4 File. bThis paper is one of a series of Meta-Analyses and Systematic Reviews assessing the relationship between child care quality and children’s outcomes; therefore, superscript letters below are in reference to various large databases that samples in these papers were drawn from. These letters have been kept consistent across the series for our readers. cSamples within papers are described in more detail in S3 File. dAcronyms for child outcomes are listed in S6 File. DCost, Quality and Outcomes Study (CQO, 1993–1994); ONational Child Care Staffing Study (NCCSS, 1988); S8-county region of North-Central Indiana (Year NR).

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0178512.g009

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Fig 10. Systematic review of the associations between the ECERS-R total score, authors Hes-Z and child outcomes.

aAbbreviations: Symbols bolded are significant and positive, symbols bolded and italicized are significant and negative, and symbols in grey are non-significant. Star = Zero Order Pearson’s Correlation, Unfilled circle = Beta, Filled square = Unstandardized Coefficient, Black diamond minus white X = T-Test, Key clover = Partial Correlation, Downward arrow = Effect Size, Filled circle = F-Ratio. aTo improve the readability of these complex diagrams, ten papers[4,46,54,66,67,70,75,82,83,101] that had an outcome that appeared in only that one paper were omitted from this figure. Several analyses from other papers that had idiosyncratic outcomes are also excluded. For a comprehensive display of all of the data for all of the child outcomes see Supplemental Information S4 File. bThis paper is one of a series of Meta-Analyses and Systematic Reviews assessing the relationship between child care quality and children’s outcomes; therefore, superscript letters below are in reference to various large databases that samples in these papers were drawn from. These letters have been kept consistent across the series for our readers. cSamples within papers are described in more detail in S3 File. dAcronyms for child outcomes are listed in S6 File. eIdentifying Colors (also referred to as Color Knowledge, Color Naming, Color Naming Task). fCounting Task (also referred to as Counting One-to-One, One-One Counting). ANational Center for Early Development and Learning Dataset (NCEDL, 2002, 2004); JHead Start Family and Children Experiences Survey (FACES, 1997) Cohort; KHead Start Family and Children Experiences Survey (FACES, 2000) Cohort.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0178512.g010

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Fig 11. Systematic review of the associations between the ECERS-R factors and child outcomes.

a Abbreviations: Symbols bolded are significant and positive, symbols bolded and italicized are significant and negative, and symbols in grey are non-significant. Star = Zero Order Pearson’s Correlation, Unfilled circle = Beta, Filled square = Unstandardized Coefficient, Black diamond minus white X = T-Test, Key clover = Partial Correlation, Downward arrow = Effect Size, Filled circle = F-Ratio. aTo improve the readability of these complex diagrams, ten papers[4,46,54,66,67,70,75,82,83,101] that had an outcome that appeared in only that one paper were omitted from this figure. Several analyses from other papers that had idiosyncratic outcomes are also excluded. For a comprehensive display of all of the data for all of the child outcomes see Supplemental Information S4 File. bThis paper is one of a series of Meta-Analyses and Systematic Reviews assessing the relationship between child care quality and children’s outcomes; therefore, superscript letters below are in reference to various large databases that samples in these papers were drawn from. These letters have been kept consistent across the series for our readers. cSamples within papers are described in more detail in S3 File. dAcronyms for child outcomes are listed in S6 File. eIdentifying Colors (also referred to as Color Knowledge, Color Naming, Color Naming Task). fIdentifying Letters (also referred to as Alphabet Recognition Test, Letter Identification, Letter Knowledge, Letter-Naming Test, Naming Letters). gIdentifying Numbers (also referred to as Naming Numbers, Number Identification). National Center for Early Development and Learning Dataset (NCEDL, 2002, 2004); BHead Start Family and Children Experiences Survey (FACES, 2006) Cohort; MHead Start Family and Children Experiences Survey (FACES, 2009) Cohort UPreschool Curriculum Evaluation Research (PCER, 1999–2003).

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0178512.g011

Studies looking at Approach [15,29,52,68,69,75,100], Cognitive [4,5,27,29,30,34,48,50,53,66,6870,75,77,80,84,85,92,94,98100,102106], and Positive Behavior outcomes [11,13,15,27,29,30,33,35,44,45,5053,6062,64,6870,74,75,77,80,81,8588,9294,96,98,100,102106,108] showed very few significant associations with ECERS/ECERS-R total scores. Several studies included outcomes that combined various developmental screeners (labeled ‘Combination’ in S4 File). These showed virtually no significant associations with the ECERS/ECERS-R total score. A somewhat higher number of significant associations were reported for analyses in which Mathematics and Problem Behavior were the outcomes. However, the direction of results was inconsistent with some studies reporting positive associations and others reporting negative associations [15,52,90]. Further, a large number of significant positive associations for Mathematics outcomes came from the NCEDL dataset and as such should be interpreted with caution as they draw from the same sample of children. Finally, of the 168 outcomes, 52 were related to children’s language development with the PPVT, WJ-LWI and author created letter identification tasks reported most frequently across studies. Several positively significant associations were identified between ECERS/ECERS-R total scores and Language outcomes, however most studies reporting this association used a single dataset (CQO).

Qualitative review revealed more significant associations between ECERS total scores than ECERS-R total scores and children’s Language outcomes, particularly for the PPVT. Studies using the ECERS-R were often conducted later and were more likely to use analyses that controlled for child and family characteristics. Thus, the lower number of significant associations identified between ECERS-R (as opposed to the ECERS) and child outcomes may reflect better quality in the studies that tested association with the ECERS-R.

ECERS/ECERS-R subscales/factors.

Virtually no associations were identified between ECERS/ECERS-R subscales or factors and Approach outcomes. A few positive associations were identified between ECERS/ECERS-R subscales/factors and Cognitive outcomes, particularly the Language-Reasoning subscale and the Developmentally Appropriate Activities factor. However, these were largely driven by a single study [99]. Similarly, the very few positive associations that were identified between ECERS/ECERS-R subscales/factors and Combo outcomes were largely derived from a single study [100]. Virtually no associations were identified for any subscale or factor of the ECERS/ECERS-R and social-emotional outcomes. However, more associations were noted for Positive Behaviors when the ‘Parents and Staff’ subscale was removed from the ECERS. A few significant associations were identified between Provisions for Learning (PL) and Teaching and Interactions (TI) and Mathematics outcomes, though most came from the NCEDL dataset. More significant positive associations were identified with Mathematics outcomes when the ‘Parents and Staff’ subscale was removed from the ECERS. Finally, few significant associations were identified between ECERS/ECERS-R subscales/factors and Language outcomes. Of note, several of these associations were identified for the PL and TI factors, factors that are conceptually linked to language development. However, negative associations were also identified for the PL factor, and the majority of the associations with the TI factor were from the NCEDL dataset. Overall, a higher number of significant positive associations are evident for the ECERS/ECERS-R total score than were identified for individual factors, subscales or shorter versions of the measure.

Meta-analyses

The number of studies included in the meta-analyses is small compared to those included in the systematic review. This is because of the methodological heterogeneity in studies included in the review. For the meta-analyses, we only pooled data when we were confident that studies were sufficiently homogeneous.

As shown in Figs 1216, 16 studies (21 samples) met our criteria, reporting 17 unique relationships of a particular operationalization of the ECERS/ECERS-R and an outcome that could be meta-analyzed. The number of studies in our meta-analyses ranged from 3 to 10. To ensure simplicity and for ease of presentation, outcomes were grouped under the Language, Mathematics and Social-Emotional headings.

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Fig 12. Meta-analyses of the association between ECERS/ECERS-R total score and child outcomes.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0178512.g012

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Fig 13. Meta-analyses of the association between ECERS/ECERS-R interactions subscale and child outcomes.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0178512.g013

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Fig 14. Meta-analyses of the association between ECERS/ECERS-R language reasoning subscale and child outcomes.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0178512.g014

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Fig 15. Meta-analyses of the association between ECERS-R provisions for learning factor and child outcomes.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0178512.g015

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Fig 16. Meta-analyses of the association between ECERS-R teaching and interactions factor and child outcomes.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0178512.g016

I2 values were low across the significant meta-analyses we conducted, ranging from 0.00–8.70 with an average I2 value of 4.67. I2 values were somewhat higher in the non-significant meta-analyses ranging from 0.00–62.6 with an average I2 value of 9.74.

Meta-analysis results by child outcome

We conducted a total of 6 meta-analyses between ECERS/ECERS-R total scores and children’s Language, Mathematics and Social-Emotional outcomes (Fig 12).

Language.

Meta-analyses were conducted for three unique Language outcomes (Fig 12).

A significant but small positive correlation was revealed between the ECERS/ECERS-R total score and the PPVT (N = 9408, pooled correlation coefficient 0.05; 95%CI: 0.02 to 0.07). Pooled results for author developed measures of Identifying Letters (N = 4273) and WJ-LWI (N = 6534) were not significant.

Mathematics.

A meta-analysis was conducted for a single Math outcome (Fig 12). No significant relationship was identified for WJ-AP (N = 9357).

Social-emotional.

One meta-analysis assessed the correlation between ECERS/ECERS-R and Positive Behavior (Fig 12). The SSRS-Social Skills (N = 2118, pooled correlation coefficient 0.06; 95%CI:0.01 to 0.12) revealed a weak positive effect. Another meta-analysis found a non-significant relationship between the ECERS/ECERS-R total score and SSIS-Problem Behavior (N = 1818).

Meta-analysis results by ECERS/ECERS-R subscales and factors

We were able to investigate the effect of two ECERS/ECERS-R subscales and two factors and children’s Language and Mathematics outcomes (Figs 1316):

Interactions.

Associations between the ECERS/ECERS-R Interactions subscale and the PPVT (N = 4837), WJ-AP (N = 4837) and WJ-LWI (N = 4837) were not significant (See Fig 13).

Language-reasoning.

A small, significant positive correlation was revealed between the Language-Reasoning subscale (See Fig 14) and the PPVT (N = 4837, pooled correlation coefficient 0.07; 95%CI: 0.04 to 0.11). The correlations between Language-Reasoning and the WJ-AP subscale (N = 4928) and the WJ-LWI subscale (N = 4837) were not significant.

Provisions for learning.

Associations between the ECERS/ECERS-R Provisions for Learning factor and the PPVT (N = 7352) and WJ-AP (N = 6680) were non-significant (See Fig 15).

Teaching and interactions.

No significant associations were identified between the Teaching and Interactions factor (See Fig 16) and Language outcomes, PPVT (N = 11, 441) and WJ-LWI (N = 6231), or Mathematics outcomes, WJ-AP (N = 9748).

Discussion

The last 40 years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of children enrolled in regulated child care [109]. Expenditures on ECEC programs have also grown substantially [110]. Research about associations between quality of ECEC environments and child functioning has been conducted in an effort to improve public policy and practice in this area [111,112].

The ECERS/ECERS-R is the most commonly used measure of global quality for preschool-aged classrooms [102]. Developed in the early 1980s, it has been used internationally by researchers and practitioners, accumulating over 30 years of data on its reliability and validity. Yet, a comprehensive understanding of its relationship to child outcomes through a systematic review has not been conducted. Despite heterogeneity in this area of research we were able to integrate data from a large number of studies. Average ECERS/ECERS-R total scores ranged from 2.9 (0.45) [66] considered to be poor quality, to 6.52 (0.64) [104], considered to be of good quality. However, the vast majority of the programs in eligible studies were just above minimal quality (total score of 4), with only nine reporting total scores that were good (i.e., 5 or greater)[15,50,52,60,83,85,102104], indicating that most centres provide mediocre care. Overall, results of the meta-analyses show a few (3 out of 17) significant, albeit weakly positive relationships were identified for the ECERS/ECERS-R total score and Language and Positive Behavior outcomes.

Empirical studies of the ECERS/ECERS-R generally find that it is made up of either one or two factors [14,30,31]. We were able to meta-analyze two subscales and two factors of the ECERS/ECERS-R. While the Interactions subscale did not reveal any associations with child outcomes, the Language-Reasoning subscale was associated with a Language outcome, but not a Mathematics outcome. When looking at factors, neither the Teaching and Interactions factor nor the Provisions for Learning factor showed any significant associations with child outcomes. These results suggest that while there is some modest evidence to support the use of a particular subscale, use of the total score may be preferable. It is noteworthy that the subscale that did reveal an association with a child outcome was one that assessed the quality of language used in the classroom, rather than materials available to children. Further, this association was identified for a measure of receptive language (PPVT). This should come as no surprise as this subscale focuses on encouraging children to communicate and to use language to develop their reasoning skills. Recent research has highlighted the importance of the quality of staff-child interactions in developing children’s language [33,113,114]. Perhaps the fact that the ECERS/ECERS-R is made up of both structural and process items explains the small magnitude of associations.

Limitations

Integrating findings in this review was difficult because of methodological limitations of many of the primary studies identified in our searches. One issue is that all of the studies are observational/correlational and thus results from these studies do not imply causality. We also identified large methodological heterogeneity in measurement approaches, for both the ECERS/ECERS-R and child outcomes.

To avoid threats to validity of combining studies that are too heterogeneous we only combined studies that used identical operationalizations of the ECERS/ECERS-R within a single meta-analysis. The one exception to this is that we combined studies that used total scores for the ECERS and ECERS-R based on findings that the two versions are highly correlated [14,20].

The fact that researchers used a wide array of child outcomes was both a strength and a limitation of this review. On the one hand, results of this review are comprehensive in that they cover a very wide range of child outcomes. On the other, many outcomes were only reported in one or two studies, which meant that we could not meta-analyze across them. Fortunately, the child outcomes that were most prevalent in the literature (e.g., PPVT, WJ-AP) are standardized measures that have been well researched, allowing us to meta-analyze results from studies that used psychometrically strong child outcome measures. That being said, our goal was to look at child outcomes that go “beyond achievement texts”. While we were certainly able to do this across the systematic review and meta-analyses we conducted, the meta-analyses in particular were possible largely for measures that fall under the “school readiness” category. Researchers should include social/emotional outcomes so that associations between the ECERS-R and a broader range of outcomes can be meta-analyzed in the future. In addition, future research on the impact of ECEC quality on child outcomes should focus on established measures with good psychometric properties to assess specific aspects of child development that are conceptually linked to the specific aspect of ECEC quality in question.

There was also enormous variability in the covariates used in different studies. More recent studies tend to control for more child/family and program variables. This may explain why we saw more significant associations for ECERS than for the more recent ECERS-R total scores, particularly for Language outcomes. To minimize the impact of this issue, we only included statistics that accounted for covariates in our meta-analyses. Unfortunately, because of the limited number of studies that were deemed meta-analyzable, we did not have the sample size needed to test for specific moderators statistically. In the meta-analysis, we dealt with this by only including statistics from analyses in which covariates were used. In the systematic review, we dealt with this by exploring patterns in the results, such as characteristics of the samples of families and children, whether papers were peer reviewed or reports and whether the papers/samples were part of a large dataset.

Another problem with the ECEC literature in general, and the ECERS/ECERS-R literature in particular, is the lack of variation in program quality. In the 73 studies included in this paper, most ECERS/ECERS-R total scores fell in the mediocre range (score of 4). While limited variability may influence the significance level of associations, it is important to note that there was still non-trivial variability in the quality of programs represented in this meta-analysis and systematic review.

Reducing the ECERS/ECERS-R items by averaging across items to get a total score reduces the richness of how the measure captures quality. As a result, two classrooms can receive similar scores despite having met vastly different characteristics. Using a global measure, with a broad scope that is often not strongly linked to outcomes of interest (i.e., ability to identify letters and numbers) may help explain the limited associations identified in this study. Consistent with this, in the systematic review we found more significant associations when outcomes were more closely conceptually linked to a specific ECERS/ECERS-R factor.

Another methodological issue is that there is a mismatch in measurement units with the ECERS/ECERS-R (captured at the classroom level) and child outcomes (taken at the child level). These methodological limitations also reflect a lack of refinement in the conceptualization of quality. For example, capturing quality at the classroom level may mask important differences in the experiences of individual children within a classroom. Clearly more research that is methodologically and conceptually rigorous is needed in this area.

Finally, as we noted above, we were not able to rate the quality of the papers included in our meta-analyses, and despite our efforts to address the many methodological limitations of the studies we reviewed, our ability to understand the effect of the study design on estimates is limited. This is because (a) our sample size did not allow us to statistically test for moderator effects, (b) for ethical and logistical reasons, research in this area is correlational and thus does not allow for causative modeling, (c) many studies either did not account for, or only accounted for some of the confounders, and (d) there are biases associated with exposure and outcome ascertainment in many studies. Nonetheless, a systematic review and meta-analyses of existing studies, that identifies these deficiencies, allows us to learn from the existing literature and develop a way forward for future studies. Furthermore, it is worth noting that our meta-analysis inclusion criteria selected for studies that are relatively strong methodologically. For example, because we only included studies in which the outcome measure was identical, we ended up with more frequently used measures that also tend to be better researched and therefore more psychometrically sound (e.g., the PPVT). Similarly, by selecting statistics from analyses in which the covariates were used and by selecting the study with the largest sample size when multiple papers reported on the same dataset, we ended up including studies that were generally stronger.

Implications for research

Despite the substantial limitations of research in this area, the current study found some evidence to support a positive relationship between the ECERS/ECERS-R and child outcomes. While the associations were small in magnitude, they were rarely negative, suggesting that the ECERS/ECERS-R captures aspects of the environment that are important to child development. However, for now, the small associations identified in this meta-analysis and systematic review suggests that investment in the measurement of other quality indicators (e.g., staff development) and the development of measures that accurately assess children’s experiences in ECEC classrooms is warranted. In addition, standardization of measurement and reporting of outcomes is needed so that in the future, results from more studies can be pooled.

Acknowledgments

Special thanks to Joseph Beyene, Charles Pascal, Elaine Baxter-Trahair, Debra Mathews, Christa Japel, Lynn Karoly, Deborah Phillips and Elizabeth Uleryk. We thank Jenaya Webb, OISE/UT’s Public Services Librarian for her invaluable assistance throughout this project. Thank you also to Stephanie Aglipay, Teresa Pietropaolo, Anastasia Howe-Bukowski, Nadina Mahadeo, Natasha Musrap, and Sonny Yeh for all of their help with the huge organizational task associated with this project.

Author Contributions

  1. Conceptualization: AB MP OF EM BF PSS.
  2. Data curation: OF.
  3. Formal analysis: AB MP OF EM BF PSS.
  4. Funding acquisition: MP PSS.
  5. Investigation: AB OF EM.
  6. Methodology: AB MP OF EM BF PSS.
  7. Project administration: AB MP OF EM.
  8. Resources: AB MP OF EM PSS.
  9. Supervision: MP PSS.
  10. Validation: AB OF EM.
  11. Visualization: AB MP OF EM PSS.
  12. Writing – original draft: AB MP OF EM PSS.
  13. Writing – review & editing: AB MP OF EM PSS.

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