Early Childhood Education scholar says NYC’s universal preschool program must be flexible, adaptive

by Dr. Stephanie Sanders-Smith  /   Sep 10, 2015

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Dr. Stephanie Sanders-Smith is the inaugural Yew Chung – Bernard Spodek Scholar in Early Childhood Education at the College of Education. She has been following the progression of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s universal pre-kindergarten program, which has enrolled more than 65,000 children, and recently offered her thoughts.

Dr. Stephanie Sanders-SmithI have been following the rollout of Universal Prekindergarten (UPK) in New York City over the past year. As the program enters its second year, I am cautiously optimistic. The New York City Department of Education is now providing high-quality prekindergarten programs for 65,000 young children. This is an enormous accomplishment. It is fully expected, at this stage, for all to not be going smoothly and some hiccups can be expected as the program finds its feet. If New York City can create a universal prekindergarten program that is of both high quality and economically feasible in a school district that serves more than 1 million students, it may demonstrate just how possible similar programs could be in smaller cities.

However, the size of the district presents concerns. I have worked closely with both Chicago Public Schools (a district with over 400,000 students) and Miami-Dade County Public Schools (a district with over 350,000 students). I have become very aware of the difficulties of implementing a program, no matter how well-meaning, across one of the nation’s largest school districts. Messages get lost or modified as they move from the district to region to school to teacher to parent. Schools fall through the cracks, taking children with them. Most concerning, school quality is wildly different across the district.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Sophia Pappas, the head of the city Office of Early Childhood Education appear to have planned for the logistics of ensuring quality across the district. Plans include a system of instructional coaching for teachers, brief start-of-year training (five days), and using a “Common Core” curriculum for prekindergarten. I am concerned about both the sufficiency of the professional development and support available to teachers and about the use of something resembling Common Core. Many of the teachers in UPK are new to the district. Additionally, some UPK slots are going to existing and variable neighborhood programs. The five-day training is insufficient. I hope that the coaching is able to provide the support that teachers need to implement strong programs and meaningful classroom experiences.

The curricula and assessments that followed the rollout of Common Core standards in K-12 to drill them into children have been in and are problematic. I would hope the use of what de Blasio calls a “carefully calibrated curriculum” that extents Common Core to prekindergarten does not mean that curricula are rigidly standardized and that assessments of young children remain authentic and developmentally appropriate. However, de Blasio’s comment on NPR’s All Things Considered that, “children will paint and sing” but also do things that will prepare them for kindergarten, suggests that he does not fully understand what happens in a high quality prekindergarten and how painting, singing, and other “fun things” do prepare children for kindergarten when paired with intentional teaching.

As UPK becomes a more stable part of schooling in New York City, I hope that Pappas and her colleagues are able to support teachers, children, and families in developing prekindergarten programs across the city that allow for meaningful experiences, child-led investigations, and help children to develop the social and emotional dispositions that will help them to become successful throughout their educations and beyond. It will be difficult to maintain equitable quality across a program serving 65,000 children. But early childhood programs, when implemented well, are flexible and adaptive for diverse children and families. The monumental task for UPK is to develop into a program that is able to maintain quality without losing the spontaneity and deep understanding of children that are indicative of great programs for young children.

Sanders-Smith, an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction, teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on socio-cultural foundations and pedagogy in early childhood. Her research interests center on the connection between pedagogy and societal issues associated with race and class, and her work focuses primarily on these connections in urban early childhood programs.