Tale of Two Pre-K's

In teacher pay gap, another obstacle for de Blasio's pre-K plan

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Teacher Thomas De Castro with one of his preschool students at the Union Washington Day Care Center in East Harlem.

Thomas De Castro, a certified preschool teacher with two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree in the works, teaches at a childcare center inside an East Harlem housing project.

If he taught pre-kindergarten at the public elementary school a few blocks north, he would earn about $9,000 more per year than he does today. Once he earns his master’s degree, he’ll lose out on about $12,000 annually because he isn’t in a public school.

The same is true for the other teachers in the roughly 850 independently run public pre-K sites across the city: depending on their union membership and credentials, they can make upwards of 40 percent less than comparable pre-K teachers at public schools, who pull in full teacher salaries and benefits.

Researchers and pre-K providers say that pay gap drives some of the most experienced teachers to public schools, fueling a “tale of two cities” within the public preschool system. De Blasio’s sweeping plan to provide free pre-K to all four-year-olds calls for “comparable” pay and more oversight for all preschool teachers, which those close to the system say is essential if the mayor wants to raise the quality of pre-K across the city.

David Nocenti, executive director of Union Settlement Association, a nonprofit that operates seven free childcare centers in East Harlem, including the one where De Castro works, said such fixes are long overdue.

“If you’re a child,” Nocenti said, “the quality and salary of your teacher shouldn’t depend on whether your closest pre-K classroom is in a center like mine or a public school down the street.”

A “mixed bag” of preschool sites

About 40 percent of the city’s free preschool seats today are in public schools and about 60 percent are in childcare centers operated by groups that contract with the city.

Public school pre-K teachers, who are part of the city teachers union, need a college degree and a state teaching certificate. The head pre-K teachers at childcare centers also must have a college degree, but they can start teaching without a certificate if they have a plan to earn one within five years.

Pre-K teachers in community-based sites, such as childcare centers, earn far less than their public school counterparts. Pay varies among teachers at community-based sites depending on which union local they are members of. (Salary data compiled by Union Settlement Association)
Pre-K teachers in community-based sites, such as childcare centers, earn far less than their public school counterparts. Pay varies among teachers at community-based sites depending on which union local they are members of. (Salary data compiled by Union Settlement Association)

Pre-K teachers at childcare centers, even credentialed ones with advanced degrees and years of experience, earn far less than their public school counterparts. Meanwhile, teachers at most centers face longer hours and more school days but receive less generous benefits than public school pre-K teachers.

The compensation gap partly reflects the bargaining might of the city teachers union. But it mainly stems from funding — the childcare centers, which must pay for rent and staff training, have tighter budgets than the public school system.

“We don’t have that kind of money in the budget when we sit down to negotiate,” said Raglan George, executive director of DC 1707, the union representing most workers at the childcare sites. The union’s contract with the city expired in 2006.

Such disparities make it difficult for childcare centers to recruit and retain highly qualified preschool teachers.

Michelle Paige, Union Settlement’s director of early childhood education, said she dreads bringing up pay with teacher applicants.

“You tell them what the salary is and they leave,” Paige said. Or, she added, “they’ll take it with the caveat” that if a public school position opens later, they will apply for it.

Sometimes new teachers hone their skills for a year or two at childcare centers — with the help of staff training and mentors — then move to the Department of Education, said Linda Flores, director of early childhood services at Henry Street Settlement.

“We’ve had teachers who come in with no classroom experience,” Flores said. “They gain that here, then they step up to working with the DOE.”

That brain drain can weaken the programs at childcare centers, which are left with fewer experienced teachers with advanced degrees, higher turnover rates, and lower staff morale, according to a policy paper by W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. Uncertified teachers at these sites may also have less money and fewer incentives to invest in education and, due to lax oversight, go years without fulfilling their study plans.

Some groups, such as Union Settlement, invest in training and quality controls to counteract the recruitment and retention challenges. And many skilled teachers prefer to work at childcare sites or stay there because public school pre-K positions can be hard to find. (Currently, about six people apply for every open public school position in the city, with 2,000 early childhood-certified teachers vying for slots each year.)

Barnett said limited data exists on preschool quality, but that the city’s community-based preschool sites are likely a “mixed bag.”

“Some places probably manage to do a pretty good job despite not having a lot of money,” he said. “Other places don’t.”

Plan aims for quality pre-K at every site

De Blasio’s pre-K expansion plan, which seeks to add more than 40,000 new full-day preschool seats in public schools and childcare centers, includes “a commitment to develop comparable salaries for teachers who have the same credentials,” said Sherry Cleary, a member of the six-person team tasked by the mayor with creating an implementation guide for the expansion.

Enid Grajales, an assistant teacher, works with a student in Thomas De Castro's preschool class.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Enid Grajales, an assistant teacher, works with a student in Thomas De Castro’s preschool class.

Cleary said the pay hike for childcare center teachers was factored into the plan’s estimated budget of $10,239 per child, which is more than $3,000 above the current cost per pre-K student. The city will need to negotiate a new contract with DC 1707 to adjust the teachers’ pay, but Cleary said that should not be a problem.

“I’ve never met a union person that didn’t want their people to earn more,” she said.

Several researchers said pay increases would only improve preschool quality if they are coupled with accountability and support measures — otherwise teachers would be paid more for the same work, whether or not it’s effective. The mayor’s plan includes several such quality controls.

The Department of Education would help recruit undergraduate students interested in teaching preschool and assist childcare sites in selecting qualified teachers, according to the implementation blueprint and agency officials. The department would also enhance a system that tracks teachers’ progress toward earning their state certificates and create a “quality assurance team” to evaluate sites and teachers. And it would provide on-site coaching to all pre-K teachers along with a weeklong summer training.

With better pay and benefits, childcare centers could hire teachers whose education, experience, or other skills make them more competitive.

Today, many certified pre-K teachers move to other grades or leave the profession rather than work in low-paid childcare centers, several people said. Meanwhile, many college students who are interested in teaching preschool pursue other tracks because of the limited number of well-paid pre-K slots at public schools, said Harriet Fayne, dean of the School of Education at Lehman College.

She said hundreds of students minor in early education each year, but “relatively few” complete the certification process due to the tight job market. If the pay and prestige of childcare care centers approached that of public schools, many of those students would be enticed to earn their certificates and enter the field, Fayne added.

“Now that there’s gold at the end of the rainbow,” she said, “I’m going to guarantee you that you can ramp up very quickly.”

Correction: The chart included with this article originally listed incorrect salary figures for public school teachers with five years of experience.

By the numbers

As city gears up for year three of its pre-K expansion, applications hold steady

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

More than 68,000 New York City children applied for full-day pre-K this year, jumpstarting the third year of the city’s expansion, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Thursday.

The total number of applications is in line with last year’s total, but the Bronx and Manhattan both saw drops in the number of families that applied. The Bronx had a 5 percent decrease, from 14,280 applications last year to 13,529.

Brooklyn, the borough with the greatest number of families who applied for pre-kindergarten, saw an increase, with 22,046 families applying — up from 21,500 families last year. Staten Island and Queens saw marginal increases.

The number of applications is just shy of de Blasio’s original goal of enrolling 70,000 four-year-olds in pre-K. The city pointed out that the number of applications represents three times the number of children enrolled in full-day pre-K before the expansion started in 2014.

De Blasio’s push for universal pre-K has largely been seen as a success, with seats generally meeting or surpassing quality standards. A recent, limited survey found that families said that pre-K saved them money and helped their children learn.

This year, the city has made a few changes to the application process. The application period opened earlier to give families more time to decide where to apply. Families will also receive offers in early May, a month earlier than last year.

Families who have not yet applied will be able to apply to programs with available seats from May 2 to May 20.

pre-k report card

City touts record 68,500 students in pre-K, releases data on program quality

PHOTO: Rob Bennett/Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio
Mayor Bill de Blasio visits Sunnyside Community Services Pre-K in Queens on March 14, 2014.

The city released new data Friday about the quality of its rapidly expanded pre-kindergarten program, which officials touted as evidence that the program has maintained high standards even as it enrolled nearly 50,000 additional students over the past two years.

With free full-day preschool as the centerpiece of his education agenda, Mayor Bill de Blasio has more than tripled enrollment since he took office — leaving some observers to wonder whether the city was trading quantity of seats for quality. The new data, compiled from reviews of a portion of the city’s 1,800 pre-K sites that were conducted from 2012 to the present, shows that the quality of New York’s pre-K program is on par with other cities.

The inspected sites on average met or surpassed the national average on a measure of teacher-student interactions, according to review of 555 cites. On a different measure, 77 percent of reviewed sites earned a 3.4 or above on a 7-point scale, which city officials said is the benchmark that programs must reach to have a positive impact on students.

However, Steven Barnett, a professor at Rutgers who is an expert on preschool programs, said that programs should strive to score a five or higher on that scale. The results are promising, he added, but should be seen as a baseline that the city should improve upon.

“They’re OK, but they’re not nearly as good as they should be five years from now,” he said. “It’s not an overnight process.”

Officials also announced that pre-K enrollment reached over 68,500 — just shy of de Blasio’s goal of 70,000 — and said that a recent crop of new students came primarily from low-income backgrounds. Of the 3,000 students who have enrolled since September, 90 percent live in zip codes with incomes below the city’s median.

The pre-K expansion has been one of de Blasio’s only initiatives to garner positive reviews from most observers.

“We’re proud Pre-K for All is performing on a level with some of the most highly-regarded programs in the nation,” de Blasio said in a statement.

The education department used two observation-based measures for the report.

The first, known as the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, focused on how teachers interact with students. It uses smiling and laughter to gauge school climate and judges the quality of questioning in a class. The second, called the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale, used room set-up and student hygiene, as well as the quality of instruction.

More than 1,000 pre-K programs were evaluated using the second measure in the past three years. On average, they scored 3.9 on the 7-point scale. City officials said a 3.4 is correlated with “improved student outcomes,” including better reading, math, thinking, and social skills.

Barnett, who has studied New Jersey’s celebrated pre-K expansion, said it’s encouraging that categories like “language” and “interaction” were scored higher than “space and furnishings” or “personal care routines.” That implies physical space and classroom routines weighed down the ratings, not teacher instruction, he said.

New York’s scores align with pre-K programs in other cities. New Jersey’s Abbott program scored a 4.0 on the ECERS-R scale in 2002-03, just 0.1 points higher than New York’s rating.

Not all of the city’s 1,800 pre-K sites were evaluated, but soon the city plans to assess all programs. Every three years, each pre-K program should receive both ratings, city officials said.

City officials said they will direct more resources to pre-K programs with low scores on these measures, including extra social workers or more professional development.

They did not offer any specific plans to close struggling pre-K programs based on these observations, though they said that is a possibility in the future. The officials also said they would consider a site’s scores when considering whether to renew providers’ contracts.

For K-12 schools, the city publishes data in annual progress reports for parents. City officials did not say they plan to present pre-K information in a similar way, though all of the data is available on their website.