Sunday, December 29, 2013

Is Universal Pre-K the answer?

Reposted with permission from TN Edu-Independent:

Locally and nationally, "universal" Pre-K continues to make news.  Memphis voters recently defeated (in a low voter turnout) a sales tax hike to pay for more Pre-K. President Obama has brought attention to the need for high quality early learning and is pushing universal Pre-K and full day Kindergarten. San Antonio, has in a way, gone big (not gone home) for Pre-K.

San Antonio expects to pay their Pre-K teachers $64,500, rising to $80,000 by 2021, and each student served is expected to cost $15,000. The program expects to serve, after a few years of ramping up enrollment, 3,700 students per year (SA has many more 4 year olds per year, but the program will target low-income 4 year olds).

(You may have noted that the expected salary for Pre-K teachers in San Antonio is much higher than what many MNPS K-12 teachers currently earn, and that a Nashville K-12 student averages about $12,000 per year).

Should Nashville, or Tennessee follow San Antonio's lead?  Is expanded Pre-K, in the form of "universal" Pre-K (Pre-K for every 4 year old), the right policy solution? It's currently popular to be for it politically, but is it the right policy solution?

Not so funny side note on that - I met with a particular TN state representative 2 years ago (my rep) and was trying to push him to bring much greater attention to early learning at the state level. He had no interest. Lo and behold, I just saw the same rep in the news "boldy" coming out for more Pre-K, attacking the other party. He just got some headline time, but disappointing that he only cares now for political reasons.

Anyways, I've long been an advocate for much greater attention and much better "age 0-5" public policy that helps young children develop and grow for their full potential. We know that the "achievement gap" is pronounced the first day of Kindergarten. Not only that, but other research makes it clear that early brain development and experiences in the first 5 years of life can really shape individuals in profound ways that will last them throughout their K-12 careers and into adulthood as citizens. A few brief graphics capture this:

Great graphic from Memphis:

Education neuroscience research makes it really clear that the brain and young body are growing at an incredible rate during the early years (90% of your brain grows during age 0-5). It makes absolute total sense that we have much more effective programs and focus on ensuring high quality early childhood development for every child.

But I'm not so sure "universal Pre-K" is the way to make that happen.  Here are some of my concerns and mixed feelings, specific to Tennessee and Nashville's case:
  • "Gold standard" studies of Pre-K show cognitive increases fade out, generally by 3rd grade. The large Head Start study has shown that, and unfortunately, the Vanderbilt Pre-K study has shown that recently as well.  This is a MUST READ on the topic: "New Evidence Raises Doubts on Obama's Preschool for All."
  • Professor Dale Farran, lead researcher on the Vanderbilt study, has some very good points in this piece, emphasizing that some of the non-cognitive gains that come out of Pre-K are quite important for both school and life. I completely agree, but I don't think we know conclusively if non-cognitive skill gains we see in Pre-K or Head Start are a direct result of the programming or other factors - such as the child growing and maturing around that age. It's also very hard to create public policy for an expected return 20 years from now.  We don't know concretely enough (the previous long term studies on early childhood programs have been small).
  • Institutionalizing Pre-K in the school system does not sound appealing to me if we're looking for high quality outcomes for kids over time. There are many reasons I feel this way, but structurally, once it is locked in the school system, there's not much incentive for the system to keep up it's quality.
  • Less may be more. Educating a diverse student body of 81,000 students in grades K-12 is hard enough, and the challenges are large enough, that we don't need to also expect MNPS to knock it out of the park as a high quality early childhood provider.  What I'm most concerned with is quality. I want quality K-12, I want quality early childhood programs - and I'm concerned that if MNPS tries to take on "universal" Pre-K, some attention will drop from the educational programming quality in K-12. Both might suffer.

  • If Pre-K is going to be expanded in Nashville - I'd rather see the school system follow the state model that allows non-profit providers and community organizations to provide Pre-K classrooms. I think MNPS would be more effective as a "program manager" and funder, and not an operator of Pre-K. MNPS as a gatekeeper of quality if you will, vetting applicants and monitoring quality outcomes, and shifting funding when a community provider isn't meeting a high quality standard, sounds much more appealing and promising than MNPS as a provider of more Pre-K.
  • The district faces a pretty substantial issue of facilities when it comes to providing universal Pre-K, or simply more Pre-K seats, for that matter. In the high need areas of Nashville where Pre-K would be most useful - many of the elementary schools in those areas are already pretty overcrowded with their K-5 student populations.  Hence, MNPS often places Pre-K classrooms across the city where there ends up being available space - not necessarily where the demand is greatest, or where the impact can be the greatest (and not many parents want their 4 year old riding the yellow school bus for 30 minutes or more each day). 
  • Not only that, but when Pre-K classrooms are put in elementary schools, one of the "quality" concerns that goes along with that is that the elementary school principal is tasked with managing the Pre-K program. Nothing against elementary school principals - but they are often focused on TCAP pressures for their 3-5 grades, evaluating teachers in grades 3-5, and often don't have an extensive background in what high-quality early learning looks like or know how to deliver high quality PD to the early learning teachers.  I think this was some of the thinking in San Antonio - they are building 4 Pre-K demonstration centers (Pre-K) only that will educate 2,000 PreKers. The other portion of the enrollment will be filled by non-profit and partner school district providers.
  • When MNPS hires Pre-K teachers - they pay them on the MNPS teacher step and ladder pay scale. It is a much higher wage, higher than what the labor market for early childhood teachers currently pays, and while great teachers are worth every penny - MNPS adding more Pre-K will mean they will draw some of the best early childhood teachers from private and non-profit providers in the city.  The same thing happened when the state voluntary Pre-K program started up and MNPS adopted more Pre-K classrooms. Is it good policy to migrate those teachers into the school system from the private or non-profit sector? Is the sum of the whole less? (if teachers move to MNPS, that means those teachers aren't in private or non-profit settings, offering their professional expertise and development to other developing ECE teachers)
  • There are big opportunity costs to investing scarce public dollars into Pre-K, whether it be "universal" or halfway there to "universal."  For example, with the big concern of the "fadeout" problem - where cognitive gains have shown to be lost from Head Start or TN Pre-K programs - if the district or the state is itching to spend x million dollars more on early childhood - what about putting that money towards ensuring a more robust K-3 educational quality for all students?

    More reading specialists in grades K-3? Creating a firm foundation of early literacy for all students is extremely critical.  MNPS could pay for 1,000 more Pre-K seats or 200 reading specialists deployed throughout the district. Or what about putting that money towards even more effective expenditures at an earlier age? Nurse-family partnership programs, especially for infants and toddlers in low-income settings, have shown really solid benefits to the child and family.
What is clear is that we need to do much much better with educating and developing ALL of our young children - so that they're well prepared for the 1st day of Kindergarten, and well on their way for their futures as adults.

We need much greater attention on the issue as a community.  Our public policies need to reflect smart and sound investments in our youngest when their bodies and brains are most vulnerable. Age 0-5 is an incredible window of opportunity for every developing child. That biological fact is not going to change.

But "Universal Pre-K" might not be the best policy solution to accomplish such an important priority.

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