When early education advocates spoke at the inaugural Preschool Nation Summit on August 5, their rhetoric had a common denominator: national pre-K is necessary to encourage economic success and close the opportunity gap between poor and rich students.
“You see now the outline of a truly national movement,” said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, the keynote speaker. Hosted at Scholastic’s Manhattan headquarters, the summit was organized by Los Angeles Universal Preschool (L.A. UP), a nonprofit that provides pre-K to more than 11,000 children in Los Angeles.
De Blasio framed the pre-K movement as a double investment: Early education lightens the burden on hard-working parents and addresses inequality by improving economic destiny.
But how this mayoral vision for universal pre-K should coalesce into a national movement was unclear. Panelists from public and private organizations offered competing ideas on measuring quality in education, assessing teachers and, most importantly, securing funding for comprehensive programs accessible to all.
“We don’t want to make pre-K the new K,” said Carmen Fariña, the head of the New York City Department of Education. “We don’t want to bring down so much assessment to pre-K that we bring the stress factor one year less.”
The city plans to boost full-day pre-K enrollment from 20,000 in the last academic year to 50,000 by September, still shy of the estimated 73,000 children who need pre-K, according to the mayor's office.
Student attendance and teacher satisfaction are important measures of success, Fariña said. As a former elementary school principal, Fariña created a policy where class monitors walked late preschoolers to class instead of their parents, motivating students to arrive on time. These details are important because pre-K students require a more personal, socially-based learning experience than older students, she said.
Offering advice to cities considering new pre-K programs, Aaron Lieberman, chairman of Acelero Learning, an organization which supports Head Start programs, said piecemeal approaches to pre-K are not effective. Qualified teachers, a high-content curriculum and six-hour days are key ingredients for the success of any program, Lieberman said. “The inputs must be right.”
Panelists cautioned results will not be immediate. For example, New York City plans to measure pre-K students’ academic success by evaluating if children are reading at grade level by the end of second grade, Farina said.
In most state pre-Ks, funding per child is inadequate to provide quality early education, said Kris Perry, executive director of the First Five Years Fund, a bipartisan advocacy group that focuses on early education. “This is something that has great urgency,” she said.
Poor children with limited English proficiency enter elementary school with “a huge disadvantage,” said Rehema Ellis, NBC News’ education correspondent. On average, low-income children enter first grade being read to for a total of only 25 hours, whereas middle class families have logged more than 1,000 hours, she said.
Restructuring national priorities – an ambitious policy endeavour – is necessary to translate universal need into universal action, added Steve Barnett, executive director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, an organization that conducts early education research.