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What US School Systems Can Learn from the Pre-K Expansion in New York

September 3, 2014

As students across the US begin a new school year, education topics from the Common Core to charter schools are prominent in the news. New York City’s public schools are no exception. After a period of activity aimed at reforming New York’s schools under the leadership of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, many wondered how the transition to Mayor Bill de Blasio would affect the city’s students. Would de Blasio be able to implement his campaign promises in education, most notably his commitment to send all New York City children to Pre-kindergarten (Pre-K)?

We spoke with two Pahara-Aspen Education Fellows to hear about the changes they are seeing in New York City’s public schools and how they think communities around the country may be able to learn from New York’s experience.

Aaron Lieberman, CEO, Shine Early Learning, chairman, Acelero Learning, Harlem, NY

“The biggest change in public education in New York City has been the dramatic expansion of the availability of full-day Pre-K. Mayor De Blasio put providing Pre-K for four-year-olds at the center of his campaign for mayor — and so far he has delivered on this effort with massive scale and surprising speed. For many who have watched slow rollouts of other educational initiatives, or incremental year-to-year expansion, both the magnitude of the mayor’s goals and the success of his efforts so far have been breathtaking. The goal is for the number of pre-K students to jump from 20,000 last year to more than 50,000 this year and to soar again to 70,000 next fall.

A venture of this size and scope represents nothing less than a moon shot — both for public education and government policy — and it is having a galvanizing impact across the city. Deputy Mayor Richard Buery has focused nearly exclusively on the rollout and he has brought the full weight of City Hall to bear in coordinating across departments and collaborating with over 1,000 community-based organizations. Processes that have typically taken months to complete have been completed in weeks. New systems for registering children have been implemented with unprecedented speed. Even the fire department put together a 100-person task force to speed up building inspections. The city unveiled a multimillion dollar marketing blitz, hired a task force of phone operators to set up enrollments, and even used birth records to go door-to-door in neighborhoods to urge parents to sign up their children.

The result: an achievement as improbable as landing a man on the moon. The mayor held a press conference this week announcing that 50,000 children have already been enrolled — and they will reach their stated goal of 53,000 over the next few weeks. Over 1,000 teachers have been hired and trained during the summer months. Everything we know about the benefits of high-quality Pre-K means that this expansion will translate into reduced special education placements, fewer children held back in future years, and, ultimately, hundreds of thousands of better and more productive New Yorkers in the decades ahead.

What does this mean for the rest of the country? Our ambitions for change have been too small. As many state budgets now swing toward surpluses, de Blasio’s Pre-K moon shoot could and should inspire others to do the same. Nothing would make a bigger difference, and yield a bigger return, than expanding high-quality Head Start and Pre-K for every child who needs it in this country. Ultimately, the impact of this moon shot would be much more significant than the actual moon landing. The success of this effort on a national scale would result in more children ready to succeed in life. Just as important, it would also help re-kindle the belief that as a country we can do something massive, significant, and important in a short period of time.”

Morty Ballen, founder and CEO, Explore Schools, Brooklyn, NY

“Nine months after Bill de Blasio took the reins from Michael Bloomberg as mayor of New York City, I have more questions than clarity about this administration’s public education vision. During Bloomberg’s tenure, it was clear what that mayor believed: that every one of the city’s 1.1 million schoolchildren would have access to an outstanding public education. To that end, failing schools were closed, charter schools proliferated, and achievement data were used to provide teachers and school leaders with data to inform their decision-making to support their students. These reforms — combined with the administration’s de-prioritization of community engagement and its poor relationship with the teachers’ union — resulted in several public narratives that got worse throughout Bloomberg’s tenure. Those specific narratives — that school closures were a result of charter school expansion (as opposed to the other way around) and the goal of using student achievement data — was to demonize the teaching profession. By the time the mayoral election rolled around last November, our city’s public education system was polarized, and school and civic leaders were distracted by a false binary that pitted charter schools vs. traditional district schools.

De Blasio and his administration saw their victory as a mandate to roll back reforms made during Bloomberg’s tenure. There’s talk to include more community input in the charter school siting process, and it’s unclear if achievement data will continue to be used to grade a school’s quality. The new mayor-appointed Chancellor, Carmen Farina, is a former teacher and superintendent from Brooklyn, which sent a strong message that the de Blasio administration values educators.

However, there’s silence on the three most important levers that will affect the critical change that is needed to make New York City’s educational system world-class. Those levers, in order of priority, are:

  1. Leadership
  2. Leadership
  3. Leadership

Over the last 10 years, research has shown that the role of the principal — second only to the role of teacher — has a significant impact on student achievement. Effective school leaders manage human capital, craft a vision, and invest key constituencies in that vision, and intentionally coordinate and deploy resources in a strategic way. We need to select school leaders who demonstrate potential in these competencies. I know just how lonely school leadership can be, from my days as a principal of Explore Charter and from my support of the school principals who serve Explore’s 1,800 students today. Our city needs to prioritize principal support, through a combination of coaches, peer mentors, and establishing a Community of Practice among current principals.

At this moment, our city has a huge opportunity to ensure every family has a quality choice in their neighborhood, and to ensure that every one of our city’s 1,500+ schools are characterized by equity and excellence. School leaders are the key to making this happen. It’s our job to leverage the intellectual and financial resources in our great city so that school leaders are the force for powerful change for New York City’s 1.1 million schoolchildren.”  

Caitlin Colegrove is the network and communications manager for the Aspen Global Leadership Network.