change of pace

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.

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.”

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.