De Blasio’s Pre-K Victory Lap May Be Premature

Mayor Bill de Blasio high-fives teacher Corie Caccese as he and his wife, Chirlane McCray, background, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, right, visit a prekindergarten class on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014 at the Sacred Heart S... Mayor Bill de Blasio high-fives teacher Corie Caccese as he and his wife, Chirlane McCray, background, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, right, visit a prekindergarten class on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014 at the Sacred Heart School in the Staten Island borough of New York on the first day for the city's public schools and the first day of his expansion of early childhood education. (AP Photo/Pool, New York Daily News, Susan Watts) MORE LESS
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New York City’s massive expansion of its pre-K program had its first day on the public stage last Thursday, when school doors opened for the first time. Since Mayor Bill de Blasio secured $300 million in state funding in late March, the administration has worked aggressively to scale up as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, de Blasio spent part of August on a victory lap. He addressed an adoring crowd at the Scholastic-sponsored Preschool Nation summit with a speech that sometimes slipped into referring to the city’s pre-K expansion in the past tense. It was a valedictory affair, a chance for de Blasio and his schools chancellor Carmen Fariña to lecture other cities’ leaders on just how they successfully navigated political and practical challenges to dramatically expand pre-K access in NYC. Early in the speech, de Blasio said:

Someone said to me, a few – months back, as we got deep into this pre-K effort, someone said – the way we should talk about this, is think about when you build a house. When you build a house the most important thing is laying a strong foundation.

The mayor meant, of course, that high-quality pre-K can powerfully improve kids’ academic trajectories. There’s lots of research suggesting that that’s true. But it’s also possible to read his words as worrisome foreshadowing. What if we think of the pre-K program as the house, rather than the foundation? Has the de Blasio administration put in the work to build a strong, high-quality pre-K system?

Probably not. The expansion this year worked out to something in the neighborhood of 30,000 new full-day pre-K seats, for a total of 50,000 students enrolled. To put this in perspective: the state of Massachusetts enrolled a total of around 15,000 students in pre-K last year. Washington, D.C., which boasts the nation’s most fully universal pre-K program, enrolls around 12,000 3- and 4-year-old students (disclosure: as of last week, one of them is my son). It took the District years to build this system up to its current state — 80 percent of D.C. 3 year olds and 94 percent of 4 year olds are enrolled. New York City is trying to add three times the total number of pre-K seats to its system — in a period of about eight months since the push for funding began.

The implementation has been, well, about as smooth as one might expect for such a massive, hurried undertaking. The mayor’s administration has been scrambling to solve the problems it can and put off or swat away those it can’t. There have been serious implementation challenges with all of the program’s basic elements: findingsafe spaces to house the program, hiring and preparing high-quality teachers, and finessing concerns over blurringchurch-state lines, and more. And now, as school kicks off in New York City, time’s up. Everything’s more or less baked in at this point. The program’s basic pieces–teachers, rooms, classroom materials—they’re not going to change much.

But despite the celebratory rhetoric, despite the fact that the first day of school is now over, the de Blasio administration’s implementation push is actually just beginning.

To begin with, the program’s proverbial “foundation” is far from structurally sound. The speed of the expansion is certain to mean that there are a few crises baked into the 2014-2015 school year. Concerns about building safety and teacher effectiveness have been rhetorically addressed, but it’s unlikely that they’ll be fully put to rest anytime soon. Reports of 39,000 building code violations across the city don’t just evaporate. Last-minute closures of prospective pre-K centers stranded parents who thought they’d found a safe learning environment for their children just five days before school started. These cancellations also gave credence to city comptroller Scott Stringer’s warning that his office had yet to receive — and thus review — around 70 percent of the city’s new contracts with private pre-K centers taking part in the expansion.

While basic safety and oversight concerns are very serious, they’re also relatively straightforward to address. Teacher quality is a whole other ballgame. In a New York Daily News column last week, New York City schools chancellor Carmen Fariña claimed that the administration had “connected highly qualified teachers to pre-K programs and provided cutting-edge training for over 4,000 pre-K teachers and assistant teachers.”

Because of the scope of the expansion, the training in question lasted only a few days.

I was interested in knowing what “cutting-edge” early education training looked like in such a truncated setting, so I spoke with a friend of mine who worked as one of the trainers. (Because he hoped to be asked to return to as a trainer, he asked that I not use his name.)

He told me that he was asked if he’d be interested in participating because he was an alumnus of the Bank Street College of Education. “It was an interesting experience,” he said. “Because Bank Street reached out before they’d actually been officially designated [to run the pre-K trainings]. Various things weren’t green-lit until weeks, even days, before the institute started.”

In preparation for running the institute, the trainers attended their own two-day training. Even with this background, my friend was still surprised when he began working with the new pre-K teachers:

It very quickly became clear to me that there were a lot of unanswered questions around this. You have a variety of contexts in which this is happening, and then a variety of places that the students are going to. You have a lot of different groups that are involved, a lot of different environments, [and] lots of organizations that are agreeing to do UPK in exchange for working from [the program’s guiding document].

Aside from New York’s early learning expectations, however, the training he described sounded relatively diffuse. “Lots of people were asking me, ‘What should my lessons plans look like?’ And I said, ‘That’s not what I’m here to do.’” The trainers provided a developmental profile of a 4-year-old student, discussed best practices for early education instruction, and spent “half a day discussing embracing multiculturalism in the classroom and challenging gender norms and gender bias.”

The teachers in his group came from a variety of professional backgrounds. Some were long-time early educators, some were trained to instruct older students, and others had no experience in early education. When I asked him what he thought about the training, he said, “We just have to temper our expectations and if they got something out of it and walk out stronger than they walked in, chalk that up in the win column.”

There’s no way to know for certain whether the training my friend delivered will be sufficient to guarantee that all 4,000 new teachers and assistants will be ready to deliver the sort of instruction that makes the difference between high-quality pre-K and less effective programs. But it seems relatively clear that a few days in the summer does not constitute “cutting-edge training”—especially for teachers without prior early education experience.

Fortunately, the de Blasio administration has started work on a more comprehensive teacher training partnership with the City University of New York. In the long run, that may provide a steady flow of trained, effective early educators for the city’s pre-K classrooms. Of course, that’s more or less the point that friendly de Blasio critics like me have been making for some time: building high-quality pre-K takes time and planning. A slower pace of implementation, one that took the very real capacity challenges seriously, would have made it much more likely that the expansion served kids well from the start.

Unfortunately, there are still other implementation challenges for the de Blasio administration to face. The pre-K expansion plan is a two-year process, which means that the de Blasio administration will be putting out this year’s fires while also hunting for 20,000 additional new seats (and another crop of new teachers) for the 2015-2016 school year.

And finally, perhaps most critically, even while addressing the substantial safety concerns, teacher-quality issues, teacher training partnerships, and expanding the program by another 20,000 seats next year … the administration also needs to be thinking about reworking the city’s kindergarten and first grade classrooms. Why? One of the big challenges in the pre-K research community is that its effects sometimes seem to fade over time. That is, pre-K students generally demonstrate strong academic gains when they enter kindergarten, but that within a few years, they’re academically indistinguishable from peers who didn’t attend pre-K. In part, this happens because teachers in kindergarten, first grade, and beyond struggle to differentiate their instruction to challenge all students.

That is, pre-K’s academic effects are strongest when high-quality pre-K programs feed into kindergarten classes that are aligned to build on those initial gains (and so on, with first, second, and third grade). While this won’t require the administration to find and vet new classroom space or bring on thousands of new teachers, it may be the most challenging implementation task. The K-12 teaching force, curricula, and expectations have much more institutional inertia. As urban education reformers will tell you, it’s much easier to build a new system than to remake an entrenched one (cf. the explosive growth of high-quality charter networks vs. the relatively modest effects of district-based efforts).

So there’s an enormous amount of difficult work left for de Blasio and his administration to finish. Done right, quality pre-K can dramatically change students’ life trajectories. But a huge body of research show that it’s hard to get right, especially when scaling up quickly. And there’s ample reason to doubt that New York City’s new pre-K seats will come anywhere close to that sort of quality. That’s why de Blasio’s rhetoric has many early education experts biting their nails. A botched implementation in New York would set back other efforts to expand pre-K access on a large scale. You can’t build a sturdy house without putting in the time to build a stable foundation. And the implementation “concrete,” so to speak, takes time to set.

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