Thursday, January 23, 2014

Thoughts on Nashville's PreK plan

Reposted from TN Edu-Independent. Posted: 17 Jan 2014
There were some more specifics released this past Tuesday night about the MNPS PreK plan for Nashville.

As I've referenced before, I think we need to do much better as a city in providing more robust early childhood development and learning for every child, but I'm not sure if "universal" PreK delivered by the school district is the way to go.

I want to preface all my comments by saying that I genuinely respect the internal MNPS leadership and staff working on the MNPS PreK project. They are driven for the right reasons and sharp, and I trust they will study effective models and ensure that the programming details of the MNPS PreK project will be based on evidence supported best practices. I worry that for some, this PreK project is a push is for political reasons. Whatever details of the model emerge, it needs to be based on best practices and meeting the need that exists in the city, creating the greatest chance of success for young students (decisions not made for political reasons).

I have some thoughts, some as constructive feedback, on thinking through the details of how expanding MNPS PreK would work, based on the plan presented to the Board:
  • I like the ambition. I like the talk about becoming a national model of excellence. There's no reason why not, and I like that expectations are high. I want that loft expectation to permeate every part of this program, so that people are motivated to deliver the best program for young 4 year olds. That starts with the leaders of the program and those designing it committing to being the best in the country - which is great.

  • I like the dedicated Center approach. I believe this will help on the quality front, which is the most important aspect of all this. This is somewhat following San Antonio's plan.  PreK classrooms within elementary schools won't yield as much high quality in my opinion, because the focus is on elementary education, K-5. That building principal is not often skilled in high quality ECE (early childhood education) or know how to lead high quality professional development for ECE teachers. In a dedicated Center, it's all ECE, all the time.

  • Will they fill up all the spots?  I worry about the locations of the two proposed centers. The Board presentation cited "high demand" for PreK, citing a large wait list, that demand was higher than supply. Big kudos to MNPS for responding to demonstrated parent demand that is outstripping supply (I wish they would adopt the same thinking with other school types where there is clear parental demand - other school choice options, including those that start with a "c" and ends with "harters").  
I believe the demand/supply imbalance is true on aggregate across the county, but I'd like to see details on where families on the wait list live exactly in Davidson County. North and East Nashville, where the two proposed dedicated centers are to be located, already have a number of early childhood providers.

I mapped the Head Start Centers, see the green icons (there are 3 partner Head Start sites, others are Head Start direct run). The red "P" marker are the proposed PreK center locations.  This map does not include places like Fannie Battle, Martha O'Bryan, and McNeilly Center's own early childhood classrooms (all located in East or North Nashville). Nor does it include the Ashland City Head Start center, which is outside of Davidson County, but by distance is not that far from Bordeaux Elementary's location.

My point is that there is a lot of existing capacity in North and East Nashville for publicly provided ECE (early childhood education), and I worry that adding two more dedicated PreK centers will cause an oversupply of ECE in this part of the county (if there isn't already). The bulk of demand is likely coming from the southeast part of the county.

It would not be feasible to bus PreK 4 year old students from Antioch every day to the Bordeaux or Ross Centers, so being able to serve demand from these areas at the Bordeaux & Ross centers via transportation doesn't seem likely.

MNPS data shows that in total numbers, the Bordeaux/Cumberland elementary zone areas are not projected to enroll that many students in Kindergarten over the next 5 years. I think PreK elgible numbers would actually be less than the projected K numbers on this chart.  If you sum these two zones, it's still well short of the planned capacity of the Bordeaux ECE center (while considering all the other spots at Head Start, private providers, and non profit providers like McNeilly, Fannie Battle, etc).
  • I wish the research presented for the PreK project was a little more balanced in its presentation. i.e. no contrary evidence of PreK was presented.  For example, the PreK presentation to the Board made a claim that PreK will "Increase student success beyond Pre-K in academic and social-emotional outcomes" (citing a Vanderbilt PreK study). The same Vanderbilt PreK study has published a subsequent report that shows the academic gains fade out. Another national study of Head Start finds that academic gains fade in the early elementary years.

    There was also the claim that long term benefits accrue to children who will be in the PreK program, citing the Perry Preschool and Chicago Longitudinal Study (this is largely where the return on investment messaging comes from). Both of these were small programs, different in design and practice, and spent far more per child than the proposed MNPS PreK program will.  For example, the Perry Preschool intervention was actually half day, a 6:1 teacher/pupil ratio, and involved consistent home visits, and cost a lot per student, among other different details.

    I don't know if all of the MNPS PreK details for the proposed plan are fully worked out, but the current practice for MNPS  PreK students is that they attend school like it's K-12 school. There aren't regular home visits by the PreK teachers, classes for parents on early childhood brain development, nutrition, it's fiscally unsustainable to do a 6:1 teacher/pupil ratio, etc.

    The Chicago program served PreK to 3rd graders (why couldn't we also do that?) and was proactive with involving parents.

    I get apprehensive when different historical projects and interventions are held up as "proof" as what we should do in the future, yet what we are proposing to do in the future doesn't involve key components of that historical intervention model.

  • I did not see any proposed plan for program evaluation (it may be part of the plan and I missed it).  How will we know this particular MNPS Center model, once all the details are set, is working?  What evaluation of the program is planned to gauge if it's a good use of scarce public funds or not? PreK Centers won't take TCAP...they'll get ratings from the TN Dept of Education, but tracking program outcomes in a robust way will help ensure quality.  We need goals and metrics that are meaningful (national model of excellence needs some of the nation's most ambitious goals), and we need to be able to measure progress against those goals.

    MNPS might want to study adopting the CLASS Teacher-Child Observation rubric as one way to gauge quality in its Centers. Head Start is starting to adopt this tool nationally, and it was developed at the University of Virginia by early childhood experts. It isn't a standardized test approach to monitor student progress, but seeks to look at child learning and development outcomes based on the teacher/child interaction.  For far too many ECE programs, we judge "quality" based on the inputs that go into a program, and don't examine actual outcomes for children (this is what currently happens with the TN 3 star rating system for child care centers).
As plan details continue to be refined and finalized, I hope that the leaders of this plan continue to focus on implementing evidence based practices while being mindful of parent demand and where it exists in the county to ensure that any MNPS PreK offered consists of high quality education and development programming. 

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