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Racial, economic gaps are widening among NYC’s free pre-K programs, researchers say

Preschoolers participate in a painting activity at Little Scholars child care center in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., on Thursday April 1, 2021.
Not all of New York City’s pre-K programs are equally strong, new research from the University of California, Berkeley finds.
Emily Elconin for Chalkbeat

Mayor Bill de Blasio often touts universal pre-K as one of the main accomplishments of his tenure and as the centerpiece of his agenda to “fight inequality.”

Seven years later, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley have found that not all of the city’s free pre-K programs are equally strong, with racial and income disparities that might set the foundation for future education gaps.

The quality of programs serving mostly Black and Latino students has stalled or declined slightly, and is lower in census tracts with higher poverty levels, according to the Berkeley analysis released this week. Meanwhile program quality was improving at centers serving mostly white and Asian children, and was higher in wealthier neighborhoods.

The findings mirror the conclusions of a similar analysis conducted by Princeton researchers last summer.

New York City is home to one of the most segregated school systems in the country, and pre-K classrooms are even more segregated than those in the later grades, research has shown. De Blasio has been reluctant to tackle segregation in the nation’s largest school system. That aversion that could now drag down his foremost policy achievement.

“This raises the specter — despite the mayor’s admirable intentions — that his program hardens, rather than narrows, racial disparities in children’s early growth,” Bruce Fuller, the study’s lead author, said in a statement. “How can this pre-K entitlement narrow inequities in early learning when quality tilts toward better off families?”

The education department countered that quality ratings of the city’s pre-K programs match or outpace national averages, and that the vast majority of programs meet the threshold for positive outcomes. Officials also pointed to family surveys that generally show parents are happy with Pre-K for All, the city’s free, universal preschool program for 4-year-olds.

“Pre-K for All is an invaluable model for the nation, and this study only considers one narrow measure of quality,” said education department spokeswoman Sarah Casasnovas. “We remain committed to understanding and addressing any disparities in access to high-quality early education, particularly as our city recovers from the pandemic that has disproportionately impacted communities of color.”

New York City uses two widely respected measures to rate pre-K quality: the Early Childhood Environment Rating scale, or ECERS, and the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, or CLASS. The Berkeley researchers traced these ratings from 2014 through 2019. The ratings systems look at factors such as classroom routines, how teachers support students’ thinking and language development, and whether facilities are appropriate for young children.

Most programs’ scores still fall within the range indicating they are effective when it comes to supporting student learning. But ratings for programs in low-income neighborhoods were lower, meaning the development of an average 4-year-old might lag three to five months behind their peers in more highly-rated classrooms, according to the researchers. The analysis also found that gains in quality were uneven, with programs serving the most white and Asian students enjoying the largest increases.

Fuller didn’t know what was driving the disparities, but suggested one reason could be teachers migrating from low-quality programs to higher-quality or better paying sites. It appeared that sites in public housing complexes scored lower on the ECERS — which focuses partly on the physical environment — due to cramped facilities and scarce outdoor play spaces, Fuller added.

Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the think tank The Century Foundation, where she has studied segregation in New York City’s pre-K program, said the paper should be “a call to action” for leaders in the city.

“We need to push for ways for more children of all backgrounds to attend racially and socioeconomically diverse early childhood programs together,” she said.

Part of the problem boils down to the country’s patchwork system of early childhood care, with low-income families attending subsidized programs that tend to offer longer hours year round. This, in turn, creates a segregated pipeline into universal pre-K classrooms.

The city has taken steps to encourage, and in some cases require, enrolling students from different economic backgrounds in the same classrooms.

Potter said integrating pre-K could be worth the effort, with studies showing that all students learn more in diverse classrooms, and that integration may even help reduce prejudice.

“The racial and socioeconomic diversity of preschool classrooms is a key component of their educational quality,” Potter said.

Jeanne L. Reid, of Teachers College at Columbia University, said the disparities in quality ratings may be driven by centers enrolling the lowest-income students, which tend to also serve mostly Black and Latino children. Those same programs may excel in serving families in ways not captured by the quality measures, such as by helping parents find jobs or providing support from social workers.

“There are other aspects of quality in a program that are important to families and support children’s healthy development and growth,” Reid said.

Her own research on the city’s universal pre-K program has shown that teachers in classrooms run by community organizations do not have the same access to planning and break time as their counterparts in pre-K programs in public schools. Also teachers in publicly funded but privately run programs — which make up the majority of pre-K seats — have historically been significantly underpaid. Only recently has the city been making progress in addressing those salary disparities.

The new findings show the city will need to step up support for centers run by community organizations, especially in the wake of the pandemic, Reid said.

“A lot of these organizations are operating with too few resources for the problems they’re trying to address,” she said, “and that’s only been more so with the pandemic and the devastation that people have experienced.”

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