(Very) early education

With a major but little-noticed move, New York City signals that learning starts at birth

PHOTO: Rob Bennett
Mayor Bill de Blasio visits pre-K class at P.S. 239 with Chancellor Carmen FariƱa in 2014.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans last month to extend pre-K to 3-year-olds, a massive expansion of his popular Pre-K for All program. But a little-noticed element of the proposal could be just as significant: He called for the Department of Education to take over programs that reach children as young as six weeks old.

As planned, the department would create a cradle-to-college approach that shepherds students and families from infancy through 12th grade. The shift signals a recognition that learning starts at birth — and so do the inequities that drag down academic achievement later in life.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of the Bank Street College of Education, called the decision “a big deal” and said it would put New York City in line with other nations that already prioritize infant and toddler learning.

“If you aren’t creating a really nurturing environment where there’s opportunity for learning and exploration for infants and toddlers,” he said, “you’re actually cementing a set of challenges in terms of how their brains develop and what their opportunities are going to be once they get to the point of pre-K or kindergarten.”

Under the proposal, the education department would assume responsibility for EarlyLearn programs, which currently fall under the purview of the city’s child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services. EarlyLearn was launched under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg to streamline services for low-income families enrolled in Head Start pre-K or home-based daycare, for example.

Now, the city plans to take that consolidation even further, with Pre-K for All serving as a model. The city has been lauded for quickly rolling out universal pre-K for 4-year-olds while also ensuring quality through teacher training and regular site reviews.

“We really want to extend that structure to the younger ages and help all these programs get better,” Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack said in an interview.

At a city budget hearing Tuesday, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the mayor’s executive budget proposal includes more than $20 million to improve EarlyLearn programs. She also stressed that bringing early childhood services under the Department of Education will help students make a seamless transition to elementary school and enlist parents as early partners in their children’s education.

“Our commitment is just to start with kids — especially with literacy skills — as early as possible,” Fariña told Council members.

Consolidating programs could also simplify a process that now forces low-income parents to navigate four different city agencies for child care and creates a compliance maze for providers.

“It’s just easier when you’re dealing with one coherent system,” Wallack said.

Success is far from guaranteed. With more than a million students, the education department already oversees the country’s largest school system. EarlyLearn programs serve about 20,000 children ages 3 and younger.

Experts said the DOE will have to resist the perhaps natural inclination to focus too narrowly on preparing children for academics, when much of early childhood education should center around social and emotional learning.

“There are right and wrong ways to do education for those children, but children at that age are learning,” said Elliot Regenstein, senior vice president of advocacy at the Ounce of Prevention Fund. “Ideally, though, you’re going to create a segment of the education system where the joy of learning is actively cultivated.”

It remains to be seen just how sweeping the shift in responsibility will be. At least initially, the streamlining will only go so far: Voucher programs that help families afford child care are expected to remain under ACS.

Gregory Brender, co-director of policy and advocacy at the United Neighborhood Houses, which pushes for affordable childcare, said there are still unanswered questions. Discrepancies in pay between educators in city-run and privately-run centers, he said, will be chief among the concerns that will now fall to the DOE to resolve.

“What does [this move] look like for parents? We don’t really know yet,” he said. “And we don’t even know what that looks like for providers.”

Back to school

Emanuel touts pre-kindergarten, but will his envisioned $175 million initiative survive him?

PHOTO: Photo: Steve Hendershot / Chalkbeat
Brownell Elementary teacher Jane Godina addresses her pre-K class Wednesday, Sept.5, 2018, after Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel visited it on the second day of school.

The morning after making a surprise announcement that he won’t seek reelection, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel scheduled a public appearance at a pre-kindergarten at Brownell Elementary, a predominantly black school located just east of Englewood on the South Side.

Wednesday’s visit served as a show of support for one of his signature initiatives—universal pre-K, which is only in its first year of rollout and could be vulnerable if the city’s next mayor does not share Emanuel’s enthusiasm.

Speaking briefly, Emanuel said he believes that the program will proceed fully without him, pointing to leadership from Illinois Senate President John Cullerton and also Democratic gubernatorial nominee J.B. Pritzker, whose namesake foundation helped underwrite an innovative social impact bond program in 2014 that funded an initial wave of pre-K seats in low-income schools.  

Emanuel’s plan offers 3,700 more free pre-kindergarten slots to low-income families this year at a cost of $20 million, then ramps up the number of available seats across the next three years. Ultimately, the district aims to offer free, full-day pre-K to every 4-year-old in the city for the 2021-22 school year at an all-in cost of $175 million.

The district did not respond to requests for the number of pre-K seats it has filled. Some schools have reported that their programs are full, with families on waitlists, while other schools have reported vacant seats. Parents complained at board meetings this summer that they found the application process confusing and chaotic.

At Brownell, the full-day offering is a hit, according to pre-K teacher Jane Godina, speaking after Emanuel had come and gone.

“We were always struggling with enrollment with our half-day program, and this year we were just slammed,” said Godina, whose class consists of 20 students. “Full-day is really what this neighborhood needs.”

Parent Lovlis Jordan agrees. She has two kids enrolled in the class, and walks seven blocks from home to drop them off before heading downtown, where she works as an office-tower security guard. Full-day pre-kindergarten means she can avoid complicated childcare arrangements, and she likes the feel of Godina’s class.

“It’s hands on, and it’s small—not too chaotic,” Jordan said.  

The importance of full-day, pre-K classes doesn’t just reflect parental needs or Emanuel’s political will: A powerful contingent of civic and philanthropic leaders support the idea here, too. “Early childhood education enjoys widespread support for many leaders at the state and local level,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of Illinois policy at the Ounce of Prevention. “We’re confident that this will be an important issue for a new mayor.”

Now advocates are armed with some telling data. Three out of four Illinois kids are unprepared when they begin kindergarten, according to first-of-its-kind data released last month by the Illinois State Board of Education. Godina said pre-K classes help kids acclimate to routines and pick up social-emotional skills, not to mention some ABCs.

“It gets them to work on all those things so that when they’re in kindergarten, they’re far more prepared than their peers,” she said.

As for pulling the plug on the universal pre-K initiative, Brownell’s principal, Richard Morgan, said that would be a big mistake.

“Any person in their right mind, if they know what the research says and they understand what’s good for children, would never pull the mat out from under them,” said Morgan, who has led Brownell for 14 years. “Once you become full-day, people begin to knock the doors down because that’s what everybody wants.”

Last year, when only a half-day pre-K was offered, some parents skipped Brownell, which had 216 students on the 20th day of the 2017-18 school year and is considered “underutilized” by the district. This year, Morgan said of his pre-K, “everyone is trying to get in.”

 

Measuring success

New York City wants to know: How effective is its training for pre-K teachers?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Students in P.S. 277 in the Bronx were among New York City's first 3-K for All cohort. The program is an expansion of the city's free pre-K for 4-year-olds.

In New York City’s breakneck effort to offer free preschool to all 4-year olds, officials have banked on teacher training as a key way to ensure that quality keeps up with access.

About three years into Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature education policy achievement, the education department and New York University are partnering to study whether that teacher training is doing the trick. One of the first studies of its kind of New York City’s high-profile program, the results could be used to fine-tune the city’s training programs to increase their impact on student achievement.

“The question for us is, ‘How do we make pre-K better, as fast as we can?’” said Josh Wallack, a deputy chancellor for the education department and a principal investigator for the study. “This study will point us in the right direction, we believe.”

Pre-K for All now enrolls about 70,000 students — providing free public preschool to any family who wants it, according to the city. When launching its program, the city homed in on research from pre-K initiatives in Boston and Tulsa that showed teacher training and coaching had an outsize impact on student performance.

“The mayor and chancellor believe that the evidence is in: We know that high-quality pre-K leads to improved student outcomes,” Wallack said. “So our research agenda really focuses on the methods we use to help programs improve quality, and one of the ways we do that is through teacher training.”

The NYU study will use measures of student behavior such as self-regulation, third-grade test scores, and how often students are held back to track the impact of the city’s different teacher training programs. The city assigns its pre-K providers to four training tracks, each with a different focus.

Those tracks are: Pre-K Explore, which focuses on math; Pre-K Thrive, which emphasizes child behavior and working with families; and Pre-K Create, which is arts-driven. A fourth track, Pre-K Inspire, gives schools more flexibility to choose what type of training they receive from the city.

The study will compare outcomes of students who attended schools in the Explore, Thrive and Create tracks to those who attended schools that choose the Inspire track. About half of all pre-K sites participate in the Inspire track, according to figures provided by the education department.

“Our expectation is that some of the models may support teacher development and kids’ learning more effectively than other models,” said Pamela Morris, a principal investigator for the grant, and vice dean for research and faculty affairs at NYU Steinhardt. “Understanding that process will be important.”

One common pitfall of teacher training is that educators often struggle to put it into practice in their classrooms. The NYU study will also measure how well pre-K teachers use the skills they learn.

Funded by a $5 million grant from Institute of Education Sciences — the research and data arm of the U.S. Education Department — the five-year study is designed to be a partnership between the city and NYU. School district-university partnerships are common, with the goal being to produce research that helps districts improve their practices.

“It really infuses the system with a huge amount of research to build this quality infrastructure,” Morris said.

Russ Whitehurst, former director of the Institute, said there is often another reason why such partnerships are necessary: to gain access to data that can otherwise be difficult to get. The need for data can create pressure on researchers to work collaboratively with districts, he said.

“It’s the nature of how these things work,” said Whitehurst, who is now a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. “You sort of have to play nice to get someone to want to partner with you.”

Wallack said the city has experts who can help crunch data for the study, but the bulk of that job will be in the hands of NYU researchers, who Wallack said would retain their independence.

“It’s just important to emphasize that, in the end, NYU will really be running the analysis here — and the analysis will be based on objective measures,” he said.

NYU and the education department have partnered in the past, and Morris said the city has proven itself to be committed to transparency. She said a “very strong” advisory board would help “ensure the research integrity.”

“I would not be engaging in the partnership if I didn’t think the city would be open,” she said. “They’ve been really terrific about seeing where the data leads them.”