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Education leaders urge patience for de Blasio's pre-K plans

UFT President Michael Mulgrew talks about technology in schools during a panel on education policy issues on Thursday.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew talks about technology in schools during a panel on education policy issues on Thursday.

One day after the de Blasio administration’s handling of pre-kindergarten contracts was called into question, Deputy Mayor Richard Buery got a warm reception from the state’s top education officials at a Thursday morning discussion event.

“You’re all officially my favorite panel ever,” Buery said at City & State’s “On Education” event.

“Enjoy it,” responded New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman, one of the panelists. “Next year, let’s see.”

Merriman’s quip was lighthearted and came after he heaped praise on Buery for his management of the city’s $300 million plan to offer full-day pre-K seats to more than 50,000 four-year-olds. The support was part of a wave of praise that came in from elected officials and advocates for Buery and Mayor Bill de Blasio, after Comptroller Scott Stringer stoked concerns over student safety because his office had vetted just 30 percent of the pre-K contracts.

The officials on the panel were optimistic about pre-K, but also worked to manage expectations about the rollout of thousands of new seats. Buery said that he anticipated that problems would arise, and others cautioned that student achievement wouldn’t be transformed immediately.

“While we should hold the mayor and his team accountable for results, let’s give them a little room too, please,” said Merriman.

His remarks underlined the tension the city faces as it emphasizes the long-term implications of pre-K for the city school system while trying to prepare the public for short-term problems with increasing full-day programs by 150 percent. Support for de Blasio’s aggressive pre-K expansion has come from the widespread agreement that more needs to be done to address learning gaps that develop between poor and middle-class students at early ages. But some skepticism of the pace of the plan has persisted, especially around basic concerns over child safety and more challenging concerns about curriculum standards and teacher quality.

“We have a K-through-12 problem in the city, and we don’t want to have a pre-K-through-12 problem,” said Tenicka Boyd, a panelist and parent organizer with StudentsFirstNY, whose daughter attends P.S. 321 in Park Slope. “I’m interested in teachers in UPK having an ambitious curriculum, an engaging curriculum, engaging students on day one.”

Joining Merriman, Buery, and Boyd on Thursday were the state’s top two education officials, Commissioner John King and Chancellor Merryl Tisch, along with United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew. The event was marked by fairly harmonious discussion, in which even the panel’s adversaries agreed on a divisive education issue: testing policies.

One year ago, the political discussion around education was dominated by broad disagreement over the new learning standards and the state new, tougher math and English tests. Those issues haven’t gone away, but they’ve fallen down the pecking order.

The panel’s moderators focused this year’s conversation on pre-K and technology in schools. Only after an hour did they turn to testing and the Common Core, a subject that nonetheless spoked plenty of comments.

Everyone on stage agreed that the state needed to push forward with its implementation of Common Core-aligned tests, a rare instance of unity in what has been one of the state’s most divisive education issues. Mulgrew, who last year was among the harshest critics of the state’s testing system, lent some support to the tests. .

“Are there much more authentic ways for children to show that they have learned things? Yes there are,” Mulgrew said. “But testing is still a valid instrument. You have to do it both ways.”

Tisch also took a moment to forcefully dispute the characterization of the standards’ rollout as “flawed.” Some districts handled the change well by bulking up their training and curriculum development, she said, while others did not.

“It became a tagline that caught on,” she said. “I would say to you that the implementation of Common Core was uneven.”

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