A dad sitting near me on the bus pointed to a book and told his 18-month-old son that the boy pictured in the book was eating “a bun.” The girl was eating “bread.” He told his son that the object in his hand was a “book” and the item on his lap was a “newspaper.” The dad went on making distinctions that some people don’t even make for their five-year-olds. Many five-year-olds enter kindergarten with sub-par vocabularies and other skills that could leave them in the dust for the rest of their lives. Many Americans now realize that for the most practical social and economic reasons, we must level the playing field through Universal Pre-Kindergarten(UPK) programs.
Honor is due Mayor Bill de Blasio for making early childhood education and UPK a part of our national conversation. Thanks to him, early childhood education is on everybody’s lips from coast to coast. As Gail Collins said in her New York Times column, “If early childhood education were an actor, it would be Tom Hanks or Meryl Streep.”
Sending all children to preschool is something school leaders have long taken for granted as a good thing with the potential to lift all boats. Many other professionals have come to this conclusion after reviewing the research. Nobody is clearer than Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman who said, “It’s a hard-nose investment that pays off in lower social welfare costs, decreased crime rates and increased tax revenue.”
The value of early childhood education has become common wisdom among elected officials of every political stripe, but paying for it is something that many of them think can happen by magic. Quality UPK is expensive. The mayor has confronted that head on. Hence, his plan to establish long-term funding through a modest tax on the wealthiest New Yorkers. If the mayor loses round one of this battle, he should fight another day until he wins.
He also needs the patience to go for quality over quantity in UPK. If a consistently excellent program emerges in NYC, it could become a model for the nation. It’s likely to take time for the mayor to win a high level of multi-year funding, and even when he does, he can’t rush to bring UPK to scale before what I call the three Qs are largely in place: quality oversight, quality teaching and quality content.
Today, oversight of the city’s early childhood programs is a patchwork of uneven quality. The Administration for Children’s Services controls the funding for much of early child care, which consists of city-funded day care centers in various kinds of buildings and family day care in private homes. Developmentally appropriate teaching and learning occurs at only some of these sites.
One day, I hope, UPK and early childhood education will be in the hands of the NYC Department of Education, which will set consistent standards.
The DOE would create the strategies for certifying and coaching teachers and monitoring program quality. Early childhood educators should have a deep knowledge of young children and the professional preparation to engage them imaginatively, and assess and address their social and mental development. They should be trained to support children with special needs and to support those whose first language isn’t English. Recruiting, training and retaining professionals would require a carefully crafted plan that evolves over time through a partnership of the DOE’s Office of Early Childhood Education and colleges in NYC and beyond.
If we rely on well-trained professionals to guide UPK content, I’m not going to worry about its quality. These educators will know how to foster creativity and keep the wolf of standardized testing from the door. They will know how to engage families so that most learning is reinforced at home, even if it didn’t start there. Not all parents can be like the dad on the bus.
The dad on the bus also makes me think of all the children below the age of four who won’t be part of Mayor de Blasio’s UPK vision. After his vision is realized, maybe we can set our sights on early childhood education for three-year-olds. Meanwhile let’s remember: Anything worth achieving takes longer than we imagine. To those elected officials who think the benefits of UPK will come without modest tax hikes for the rich, I would like to reinforce another part of the Heckman equation: “We’re saving money for everyone…The benefit is broadly shared.…It’s something that would actually accrue to the whole country.”
This column is reprinted from the March 2014 CSA News.