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A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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A Smart Preschool Debate at Fordham Institute, with One Thing Missing

Published:  March 18, 2013

Debates on preschool can sometimes devolve into misinformed squabbles over whether children can benefit and by how much. But a debate hosted last Thursday at the Fordham Institute was a refreshing exception. For 90 minutes, speakers and the audience reckoned with several important policy questions, especially on the extent to which the federal government should get involved to improve quality and access for families. The one thing missing was a serious conversation about how to build a strong, professional workforce of pre-K teachers.

The debate featured Sara Mead, senior associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners and former director of the Early Education Initiative here at the New America Foundation (full disclosure: she hired me), and Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution and former director of the Institute for Education Sciences. 

Both have written extensively about President Obama’s preschool plan.  In his blog posts, Whitehurst has commended the plan’s targeted approach, as described in the three-page fact sheet (but not mentioned in Obama’s State of the Union speech). Whitehurst was among the first to point out that Obama’s plan would not necessarily lead to universal pre-K because it aims first to assist families at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. He also likes that the plan de-emphasizes Head Start for 4-year-olds, and instead builds greater capacity for serving them in the K-12 system. (The proposed shift in Head Start away from teaching 4-year-olds is something we’ve noted as well, and it represents a shift already underway nationally, especially in states that serve a relatively high number of children in their pre-K programs.)

In her Ed Week blog, Mead has commented upon and questioned several aspects of the president’s proposal, worrying about the tricky nature of federal-state cost-sharing – again, as described in the three-pager, which is all we have to go on until we see the proposed budget for fiscal year 2014 next month – and pointing readers to solid evidence of large-scale preschool programs that work.  

In the debate, both Mead and Whitehurst focused on states as major players. Mead said the federal government’s role should be to motivate states to provide high-quality preschool and to help grow the supply of teachers and preschool programs that meet high-quality standards. In her remarks, she cited the Abbott preschool program in New Jersey and the Texas School Ready program as two large-scale, state-funded pre-K programs with records of success that last into the early grades of elementary school.  She also praised AppleTree Institute, a charter preschool in Washington, D.C. (For more on AppleTree, see video from our Turnaround 2.0 event in January.)

On Head Start, Mead said it often gets a “bum rap.” She spoke favorably about the latest efforts to reform the program by allowing new providers to compete for Head Start grants in geographic areas where current Head Start providers have not met the Administration’s standards. But she noted that some geographic areas still don’t have any providers willing to step up and compete, which she called a “travesty and lost policy opportunity.”

Whitehurst appears to see a role for the federal government as well, especially in providing financial assistance to disadvantaged families. During the debate, he suggested that one avenue for preschool expansion might be possible through expanding the Child Care and Development Block Grant program that, in most cases, provides vouchers to families to use as they choose. 

In one of his blog posts, however, Whitehurst links to a study showing negative impacts of CCDBG-funded child care, and a close read of that study, as well as others, shows the importance of high-quality child care in helping children build the cognitive and social skills needed for success in school. 

This was a point of contention in the Fordham debate, and one area I wish we could have heard more about. Whitehurst and Mead disagreed on how much one should rely on a free market for high-quality child care. Not surprisingly, I side with Mead on this. To reach high bars of quality, child care centers and preschools must pay their staff a decent wage, insist upon and provide continuous professional development and set high standards for teaching. Doing this requires resources. Without subsidies, preschools at this level of quality have no choice but to set tuition at rates too high for low-income families.

Both Mead and Whitehurst touched on the larger question of how to push for quality providers while also enabling a diversity of providers to thrive and preserving choices for families. I agree that these are very important goals, and among the hardest policy nuts to crack.  And Mead did touch on some ideas for improving teaching quality without relying on traditional education-school routes, as she described the themes in her 2011 paper, Beyond Bachelor's: The Case for Charter Colleges of Early Childhood Education, co-written with Kevin Carey, now director of our Education Policy Program here. (Also see this Q-and-A on the paper.)

But the task of professionalizing the workforce while a preserving diversity of providers is one topic that, to my mind, did not get enough airtime. Setting bars for quality requires setting common standards, especially so that preschool teachers can share and collaborate with kindergarten and 1st grade teachers. But somehow we also need to ensure that teachers do not feel that they are cogs in a wheel. In my talks with teachers, I’ve learned how many strong, thoughtful teachers relish the ability to differentiate themselves as experts in say, Montessori, or Reggio Emilia, or in AppleTree’s teaching methods.

Mead and Whitehurst delved into several other topics, from the nature of preschool research to the dilemmas of infant-and-toddler care, during their conversation.  In short, it is a debate well worth watching – especially for those who are yearning to hear more than platitudes about preschool.  Check it out.

UPDATE 3/20/13 at 5:55 pm ET: Just realized I should have noted Mead's mention of her paper on some creative alternatives to current system of credentialing pre-K teachers. Her paper does speak, in part, to some basic questions of how to create better credentials for teachers without a bachelor's degree. A sentence has been added above.

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