One city’s attempt to professionalize early education could be a model for the nation.
“We believe that preschool is an integral part of the public school system and public school should be universally available because every child can benefit from it,” said Josh Wallack, Deputy Chancellor of New York City’s Department of Education. “Therefore, preschool should be universal.”
The changes have come with new money and support to ensure that the city is not only offering preschool to all, but top quality preschool to all. Teachers — many of whom are veterans of the city’s smaller, existing preschool program — have been asked to change their classrooms and step-up their teaching to improve the overall caliber of the program. In particular, classrooms are now held to the standards laid out in the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale(ECERS), a tool designed to evaluate preschool classroom environments. After a mixed review in 2014-15, P.S. 3 teachers were advised to add more dress-up options in their dramatic play area, purchase outdoor play equipment like tricycles and grow their block collection.
The city’s experience with improving and expanding its existing preschool teaching force could provide a good test case for other cities or for the entire United States, were we to pursue a national universal preschool program. Though New York City is certainly one of a kind, its internal diversity more closely resembles the country as a whole than any other single city. Because it is so large, officials here have had to do everything “at scale,” meaning they needed to create systems that would work for thousands of teachers and tens of thousands of children, not just a few hundred.
For Marcy Whitebook, director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, who has been focused on this group of workers for three decades, the very fact that there is debate about qualifications for teachers of young children is evidence of how little we value their work.
Caring for young children can’t be separated from teaching them, Whitebook said. Wiping a nose or accepting a hug is part of the work of encouraging children to become confident young learners who will ask questions and try new things. Without the caring, little learning can take place.
In fact, brain science shows that this combination of caring and educating must go hand in hand for this age group. While a 14-year-old might manage to learn something about the Constitution from a social studies teacher he doesn’t like, a 4-year-old is incapable of learning much from an adult he does not trust. That truth contradicts the idea that the care and education of children can ever be separated, Whitebook argues.
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