Bill de Blasio’s Pre-K Expansion: A Model for Other Cities?

Universal prekindergarten is a hot topic these days, stirring up big emotions. Do we target scarce resources to those children most in need? For about a year, I was stalked on Twitter by a woman who fiercely believes that’s the way to go.  Anytime I mentioned the words “universal,” or “preschool for all,” she was there, haranguing me for my wrong-headed response. This was often, as you might imagine.

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Or do we make preschool available to all? Many argue that the only way to ensure sustainability is to get buy-in from middle class parents.  This policy debate has been long-standing, and vociferous.   But ever since Oklahoma began offering free, voluntary access to preschool programs for all 4-year-olds in 1998, we’ve been trying to find the answer.

Now all eyes are on New York City, and the panic is palpable.  What happens if we fail? We need a big win with impeccable implementation and outcomes, the naysayers warn.  We’re putting the whole enterprise of early childhood education at risk.

But where’s the long view?

Education and social reform efforts play out differently over time and space, their trajectories singular, and outcomes indeterminate.  All politics, as the saying goes, is local.

Bill de Blasio’s prekindergarten initiative is a bold experiment, the star element of a strategy to combat inequality.  Not surprisingly, he’s on the hot seat.  Critics say there’s no method to his madness; they predict a train wreck, the result of a rapid scale-up—a sacrifice of quality for access.  An emergent early childhood workforce must be educated and certified. Real estate is at a premium, leaving little space for the system’s four-year-olds, many of whom are educated in community-based organizations in the most segregated school district in the country.  It’s a “big lift,” in the words of Richard Buery, deputy mayor of strategic policy initiatives, one in which “there will be lots of things we won’t have solved.”

But those waiting for derailment ignore the state’s history and context.  They also leave out New York City’s parents, including those in the middle class, whose budgets are strained by preschool fees on par with college tuition.  Universal early education has languished on a starvation diet since 1997, when Republican Governor George Pataki enacted legislation. De Blasio has tapped into a vein of need and dissatisfaction, seizing the moment.  Whether his method is replicable is anyone’s guess; it may well be beside the point.   He is exporting a model of government as a force for change in a time of political sclerosis, confirming early childhood education as a public good.

A version of my answer to the question posed in this blog’s title was published in The Weekly Wonk, a digital magazine and podcast at the New America Foundation.  For my response, and those from other “wonks,” you can check in right here.

P.S. I would love to hear what you all think about the universal vs. targeted question, and how de Blasio’s initiative and other pre-K efforts across the country are playing out on the ground.  Let me know!


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The Case Against Summer Vacation: Something Smells Fishy

This week, as kids and adults were wilting in the heat, Christina Duncan Evans, a high school teacher in Baltimore, made the case against summer vacation.  “With so many huge education-reform ideas under discussion,” she asks, in a piece at Education Week, “why isn’t altering summer vacation on the table?”

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Evans talks of the loss of knowledge and skills—or “summer slide,” as it’s now known—during the nine to ten weeks of the U.S. break.  A danger, in particular, for low-income students, as the New America Foundation noted in a recent forum on the phenomenon:

The so called “summer slide” in educational achievement hits young children from low-income families the hardest. Without opportunities to read together with adults, to practice new skills and to gain exposure to new words and ideas, far too many young children lose two to three months of reading skills each summer. Scholars have documented that two-thirds of the ninth-grade reading achievement gap can be attributed to this loss in the elementary school years alone.

Evans calls state policymakers on their hypocrisy: how can they claim they’re data-driven, and not act on the information they have?  And how can they be complicit in maintaining such an antiquated model of schools, one that’s wholly inadequate to the task of producing those 21st-century thinkers for a global economy? Our high-performing competitors, she asserts, spread the breaks around, throughout the year.  And she’s not above venting, noting that the burden of improving outcomes falls disproportionately on the adults working in schools, not on students and families.  “Asking ordinary families to make substantial changes is a much tougher sell,” she writes—after mentioning the potent summer camp lobby.

Evans is right that teachers bear a great burden.  But she needs a little data review herself.  As Duke economist Helen Ladd has concluded, citing a robust evidence base, families’ socioeconomic status is strongly correlated to student achievement. The education policies du jour—which promote a punitive form of accountability—are putting tremendous pressure on Evans and her peers to compensate for deep, structural inequalities that perpetuate achievement gaps.  It’s not surprising that she’s carping about the length of summer vacation.  But she seems to be grasping at straws.

A shorter hiatus, or more frequent breaks, might ward off some of that dreaded skill decline. Some states have already tinkered with this tradition. And it would likely be easier on parents as well.  But then there’s that powerful camp lobby, protecting its sylvan turf.  Participants in the New America event pondered the use of well-deployed technology to close the summer gap, or the ways in which “digital connections might help parents tap into affordable and motivating opportunities for their children to experience the joy of reading and learning, offline and on.”

Who can argue against the joy of reading and learning or equitable access to technology? I won’t.  But here’s my beef on the slide.  For the children of the socioeconomically well-endowed, for whom “affordable and motivating opportunities” are a dime a dozen, summer has long been a time for fun and daydreaming, playful and intellectual enrichment, and meeting the challenges of nature.  A few of the things that we know nurture growth and a sense of competence in children who are lucky enough to have them.  Many of the kids we label “disadvantaged” have a surfeit of these opportunities, particularly the ones outdoors—the impetus for the founding of Outdoor Afro, a “social community” that reconnects African-Americans with nature through camping, hiking, biking, birding, fishing, and gardening.  The repercussions for children’s healthy physical, cognitive, and emotional development in the absence of such experiences are worthy of our serious consideration.

To suggest that “those children”  be tethered to technology or consigned to a narrowly focused, academic regimen in the service of benchmark maintenance and ever-higher test scores is to pervert the notion of equity.  It’s also hypocritical.  Would we want the same for “our” children?

Photo Credit: Kristin B. Eno


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Empathy is Great, But It’s No Silver Bullet for Ed Reform and Poverty

Empathy is the bedrock of our civilization.  Without it, we might as well pack up our tent and leave the planet.  We can’t have enough of it—in government, in schools, in families, in communities, and the world.

Kids develop empathy earlier than we ever could have ever imagined, as Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology and [... click post title to read more ...]


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