On December 18, 2015, New York City’s Department of Education released the much-anticipated program assessments of its rapidly growing universal pre-K program.
The program has seen an increase in enrollment of nearly 50,000 students since Mayor de Blasio, who ran on a platform of expanding publicly-funded pre-K access, took office.
Halfway through their first year guided by the new Pre-K for All Quality Standards, NYC’s pre-K classrooms are faring well when it comes to teacher-student relationships, but there is room for improvement in most other areas, including the physical learning environment, health and safety, and positive classroom culture. The assessment results, based on two different observational tools that measure students’ academic and social experiences in the classroom, rate the overall quality of preschool programs across the city.
Institutions received scores based on the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) and Early Childhood Environment Rating System-Revised (ECERS-R) evaluation tools. The former focuses on classroom interactions such as emotional support, classroom organization, and instructional support. The latter also measures the quality of interactions, in addition to space and furnishings, personal care routines, language reasoning, activities, and program structure.
When compared to other high-performing pre-K programs, NYC’s CLASS results are, for the most part, commensurate. High scores of 6–7 indicating effective teacher-student interactions have been consistently observed throughout the observation period. Mid-range scores of 3–5 mean that effective interactions have occurred, but that there were also intervals when interactions were either ineffective or didn’t occur at all. And scores of 1–2 reveal low-quality interactions between teachers and students, generally indicating poor classroom management and rote forms of teaching. New York outperformed Boston in the emotional support and classroom organization categories, while matching or coming very close to Head Start’s nationwide average in both categories.
However, the three comparison groups — NYC, Head Start, and Boston — have significantly different scores in what is possibly the most important element contributing to school readiness: instructional support. This area is evaluated by determining “how children’s cognitive and language development are promoted. This includes teacher support of children’s analytical and conversational skills and the quality of teacher feedback to children.” Boston ranked highest with a score of 4.3 out of 7, followed by NYC with a score of 3.6, and Head Start with a score of 2.9.
These notable differences may be due to varying pre-K teacher licensure requirements. At the time the data was collected, preschool teachers in Boston had to have at least a bachelor’s degree and complete an early childhood teacher program, as well as pass three state exams. Preschool teachers in NYC, by comparison, must have a bachelor’s degree and complete a teacher preparation program — which may or may not include specific coursework in early childhood education — before passing a certification exam. Head Start does not require a bachelor’s degree. In fact, teachers in Head Start classrooms may only hold a child development associate credential (gained through work experience in the field), though the organization encourages center-based programs to have staff members with at least an associate’s degree in early childhood education.
The rigor of teacher qualifications, then, appears to relate to the instructional support scores. Boston, with the most demanding standards (mostly a function of their specialized training program requirement), has teachers best equipped to provide instructional support to 3–5-year-olds. The lax teacher preparation requirements for Head Start are reflected in their very low instructional support score. Likewise, New York City barely earned half of the available points in this category, suggesting that a re-examination of its licensure requirements is needed.
To provide context for the ECERS-R assessment, NYC scores were compared to scores received by New Jersey’s Abbott school district when its pre-K program was at a similar stage of implementation. Out of a high score of seven, NYC received less than desirable scores in three out of six categories. The least concerning low score is arguably for space and furnishings, for which it received a 3.8, compared to Abbott’s 5.2. The lack of available indoor and outdoor space in New York City makes it difficult to have large classrooms and outdoor playgrounds, especially since many NYC preschools rent space from churches, other schools, and commercial property owners.
A red flag, however, relates to personal care routines, for which NYC received a score of 2.6. This category measures “the content and practices around meals and snacks and nap/rest, hand washing among students and staff, and other health and safety practices.” While space and facilities limitations do not explain why children are not being taught healthy personal hygiene practices, it’s conceivable that training or supervision of children does.
New York City’s overall ECERS-R score, a 3.9 compared to Abbott’s 5.4, is disheartening given that over 1200 programs took part in the study. With so many included, there is little reason to believe that a handful (or even dozens) of low-performing programs would have a substantial effect on the overall average. Even locations with smaller data sets — such as Illinois’, which received an overall score of 4.4 — outperformed NYC in all areas except for one.
A Final Thought
To be fair, it’s important to remember that this is the first year New York City is using the Pre-K for All Program Quality Standards. Many classrooms are likely in transition as they adjust to the new standards. Given that the Abbott school district was able to increase its overall ECERS-R score from a 4 to a 5.4 over the years, there is hope that NYC can make similar gains.
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