Professor helps strengthen education, child development across cultures

Professor Derek PriceAssociate Professor of Psychology Derek Price’s primary area of scholarship has been early cognitive development, focusing on how it is grounded in the everyday lives of families across cultures. His recent scholarship has included comparative study of childhood development among Native American cultures, particularly the Navajo. For years he has worked in partnership with the STAR School in Arizona evaluating programs to gauge success, especially in enhancing early math development. The Quarterly recently talked with him about his work:

Tell us about your research with the Arizona school.

Most fundamental is the evaluation of the overall program that I conduct each year for the Montessori-based, federally funded preschool, which serves 20 or so Navajo children. The program is bilingual and bicultural. A U.S. Department of Education Demonstration Grant for Indian Children that supports the work requires standardized assessments of English language, and both cognitive and social development. We also assess the development of Navajo culture and language, parents’ satisfaction with the program, and the children’s math development. As program evaluator, I assemble and analyze quantitative and qualitative data on all these measures. The results have been strong enough (especially in math) that the Rural School and Community Trust has funded the STAR school on a second grant, which will allow us to disseminate the key program elements to other indigenous-serving schools. The second element of my work has been to collaborate with the teaching staff, from preschool through second grade, to identify and describe the program elements in video segments that can be previewed by potential partner schools. That work is just now unfolding, but some video segments already are on Finally, in this seventh year of the preschool program, Mark Sorensen [school co-founder in 2001, director and grant writer] and I are developing a longitudinal database that eventually will allow us to test prospectively some hypotheses about educational trajectories over time for Navajo children.

How did you become interested in your field of scholarship?

As a graduate student, I began with an interest in adults’ mental imagery, but the birth and development of my own daughters sparked an interest in how young minds develop so quickly. My first scholarly work was about the structure of young children’s knowledge of everyday events. Eventually, my research interests began to be influenced by my teaching of a course titled “Infancy Across Cultures,” which focused on Navajo society. My students in that course wished for opportunities to join me in learning firsthand about child development in Navajo society, leading me to develop a January service-learning course titled “Child Development in the Navajo Nation.” This, in turn, led to closer relationships with Navajo hosts and eventually to an invitation to help guide and to evaluate the STAR preschool program. My current work on Navajo children’s early development will continue after my retirement from Wheaton this spring.

What does your annual summer research involve?

It entails both program evaluation and longitudinal study. The program evaluation assesses how well the preschool meets several layers of goals: U.S. federal regulations, Arizona state regulations, and the goals set by the grants. I select the assessment instruments, guide the data collection, summarize the data, and interpret their relationship to the goals. I must be in Arizona in August to collect the preprogram “before” data and then again in May, for the “post” data. What we have learned so far is that the program is highly valued by Navajo parents and children, and it does indeed enhance the children’s development. For example, the typical starting point in math is quite low, but by year’s end the typical math score is at or above the national norms. The program’s documented success has helped Mark get the new dissemination grant. That grant will be the focus of my January work. The longitudinal study of the children from the STAR preschool program will allow us to address complex questions regarding the relationships between early school experiences and later success in school. For example, previous research suggests that middle school academic success can be strongly predicted by early math and vocabulary development among all children, but high school academic success may be best predicted by social and identity development, especially in minority children. Clear findings from our database may help to address vexing questions about precursors to school dropout and early pregnancy among Navajo teens.

How does this research connect to your coursework?

There has been a long-term synergy between my teaching and research. I first began taking students to the Navajo Nation because their interests were so strong from my infancy course. That led to cultural exchanges, with Navajo guests coming to Wheaton to present cultural programs on five different occasions. This research interest now pervades my coursework. In my “Quantitative Research Methods” section, I illustrate issues in the cultural validity of psychological assessments, describing my own concerns and decisions, all grounded in experience. And students continue to be involved in my research. This fall I hired a Wheaton Research Partner, Jared Cohen ’13, to help work on the development of the longitudinal database, now seven years in the making.

Photo by Keith Nordstrom