Planning for Pre-K Perfection

article | September 18, 2014

  • New America

During his campaign for mayor, Bill de Blasio promised universal access to Pre-K students across New York City. Just eight months after taking office, Mayor de Blasio delivered promise, and close to 50,000 Pre-K students attended class on opening day. But some have criticized the plan for being rushed, saying that it lacked proper planning.

We asked six experts: Is New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio’s method for expanding Pre-K a model for other cities?

Conor P. Williams --Senior researcher in New America’s Early Education Initiative. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

I’m of two minds on this question. First, yes, the de Blasio administration’s emphasis on early education should be a model for all city, state, and federal policymakers. We have strong research showing that high-quality pre-K can improve children’s long-term academic (and life) outcomes. Mayor de Blasio has been extraordinarily, powerfully focused on this issue.

Second, the problem for New York—and for cities who take it as a model—is that the aforementioned research also suggests that pre-K quality takes lots of planning, training, and oversight to build. As I’ve been writing since de Blasio took office (here, and here), there really is no precedent for expanding a city’s pre-K program at this scope and speed. Washington, D.C.’s pre-K program is one of the country’s most comprehensive, but despite being extraordinarily well-resourced and well-staffed, it still has a long way to go to improve quality. It’s taken years to expand its enrollment to current levels—around 12,000 students. For comparison’s sake, consider that the de Blasio administration is adding 30,000 new seats to New York’s pre-K this year, with about six months of planning. Last-second news that some pre-K staff and buildings haven’t been fully vetted are certainly cause for concern.

Pre-K research confirms many people’s intuitions about education and child development. It seems obvious that investing early in kids’ success can be a powerful lever for change. But while the argument may be easy to understand, it doesn’t follow that quality pre-K is easy to implement.

Steve Barnett- Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. Follow NIEER on Twitter.

Whether NYC offers a good model for other cities to follow in expanding pre-K is something that we will only know after some years.  However, it is not too soon to say that NYC offers one important lesson for other cities.  When adequate funding is available, cities (and states) can expand enrollment quickly on a large scale at high standards.

A key reason for that is there is a substantial pool of well-qualified early childhood teachers who do not teach because of the field’s abysmally low financial compensation and poor working conditions.  When we offer a decent salary, benefits, and a professional working environment many more teachers become available.  Of course, NYC also put a lot of hard and smart work into finding suitable space and recruiting families to participate.   Whether NYC achieves its ultimate goal of offering a high-quality education to every child will not be known for some time, but this will depend on the extent to which NYC has put into place a continuous improvement system to build quality over time.

It would be a mistake to assume that high quality can be achieved at scale anywhere from the very beginning no matter how slow the expansion. Excellence in practice must be developed on the job through peer learning, coaching and other supports.  If NYC successfully puts a continuous improvement system in place and quality steadily improves over the next several years, then it will have much to offer as a model for the rest of the nation.

Related: What will the future of education look like?

Susan Ochshorn- Founder of ECE PolicyWorks and author of the forthcoming Squandering Our Future. Follow her on Twitter.

Education and social reform efforts play out differently over time and space, their trajectories singular, and outcomes indeterminate.  All politics, as the saying goes, is local.

Bill de Blasio’s prekindergarten initiative is a bold experiment, the star element of a strategy to combat inequality.  Not surprisingly, he’s on the hot seat.  Critics say there’s no method to his madness; they predict a train wreck, the result of a rapid scale-up—a sacrifice of quality for access.  An emergent early childhood workforce must be educated and certified. Real estate is at a premium, leaving little space for the system’s four-year-olds, many of whom are educated in community-based organizations in the most segregated school district in the country.  It’s a “big lift,” in the words of Richard Buery, deputy mayor of strategic policy initiatives, one in which “there will be lots of things we won’t have solved.”

But those waiting for derailment ignore the state’s history and context.  They also leave out New York City’s parents, including those in the middle class, whose budgets are strained by preschool fees on par with college tuition.  Universal early education has languished on a starvation diet since 1997, when Republican Governor George Pataki enacted legislation. De Blasio has tapped into a vein of need and dissatisfaction, seizing the moment.  Whether his method is replicable is anyone’s guess; it may well be beside the point.   He is exporting a model of government as a force for change in a time of political sclerosis, confirming early childhood education as a public good.

Laura Bornfreund- Deputy director of New America's Early Education Initiative. Follow her on Twitter. 

There are certainly lessons cities and states can learned from New York City’s pre-K expansion.

First, Mayor de Blasio’s goal of providing high-quality pre-K to all NYC 4-year-olds is one that others should adopt. This should be a goal for 3-year-olds too. Second, ideas are easy—seeing them through is hard. Too often, especially in education, there is a rush to do something new without thinking through the potential challenges. In de Blasio’s case, the challenges are big: they range from logistical problems like finding space for classrooms, to broader questions like considering how to build connections between pre-K programs and the early grades in public schools. Third, staffing pre-K classrooms with strong teachers is not an easy task. Elementary school teachers may not have an understanding of how to impart new concepts on young learners. Current teachers of children birth to age 5 may not have the required qualifications or the content expertise to challenge pre-K students. And because of salary inequities for pre-K teachers who work for community-based providers and public schools, both of which are in play in NYC, it is tough to retain strong pre-K teachers in community settings.

All of this is to say that while his goals are right, de Blasio’s method has room for improvement, which is an important takeaway for cities looking to New York City as a model.

Robert Pondiscio- Senior Fellow at the Fordham Institute. Follow him on Twitter.

So far, we’ve proven a lot better at creating political appetite for preschool than creating effective programs for kids—at least on a large scale. Frankly, the idea of “universal” Pre-K is probably not the greatest use of public dollars. A good preschool program should be aimed primarily at low-income kids and focus like a laser on closing the language and knowledge gaps that form early and persist throughout their school careers, thanks to the pernicious “Matthew Effect.”  Thus a good preschool should aim to do a lot of what is simply baked into the lives of affluent children—rich language, enriching experiences, cognitive stimulation in a warm emotional setting. I’m not encouraged that New York City is focusing its program this way.

Of equal importance is what comes after preschool. Even if New York’s preschool program is wildly successful, it has to be followed up with strong elementary education; otherwise you shouldn’t expect to get much out of your investment. We don’t really have the luxury of doing preschool well—assuming we can even do that—and believing we have accomplished anything of note.

The bottom line is that good intentions do not ensure good programs. Poor kids deserve both. We should probably be investing more in figuring out how to deliver effective preschool at scale before we rush ahead with universal programs. I fear we are overpromising and doomed to under-deliver to the kids who need this the most.

Related: Nearly 2/3rds of MOOC users live abroad.

Megan Carolan- Policy research coordinator at the National Institute for Early Education Research. Follow her on Twitter.

When New York City opened the doors to expanded pre-K for thousands of 4-year-olds earlier this month, it marked a huge departure from the scene just a year ago, when Mayor de Blasio was still seen as a longshot candidate and Christine Quinn was focusing on preschool loans. Other cities looking to expand their early childhood offerings may wonder how New York changed so quickly.

Preschool wasn’t a new expansion for de Blasio: expanding pre-K was a hugely personal priority for the Mayor and his wife, and de Blasio has been highlighting the shortage of seats when he served as Public Advocate from 2010 until his mayoral election. The de Blasio camp built partnerships both at a personal and political level from the start; the public debate with Governor Andrew Cuomo was never over whether to fund preschool, but how to fund it to balance the needs of the state and the city. Coalition-building didn’t stop there. In order to both solidify political support for this endeavor, and to build on existing capacity, the Mayor was clear about including community- and faith-based providers.

Despite the image of tough-talking New York swagger, what really aided the rapid expansion was compromise and building partnerships (some of the very social skills kids will learn in pre-K!). Bring together diverse stakeholders as well as local and state officials in an effort so clearly supported by residents put pre-K in the fast lane. No two cities will have the same mix of existing systems and political ideologies, but collaboration and compromise are key to meeting the needs of young learners across the country.


  • Photo of New America

    New America