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:
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:
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).
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
- 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.
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.
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).
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
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
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
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.
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.