Free public school starting at age four, or even three, is growing in many American cities. It’s gaining traction as a way to help young children learn the reading, counting and social skills that prepare them for kindergarten. It also promises to help close academic gaps between rich and poor children. Above all, it may have lasting benefits for attendees, including success in school and better lives as adults.
But promises are not guarantees, and universal pre-K works better in some places than in others. Washington, D.C., runs one of the country’s oldest, best-funded, most comprehensive pre-K systems. So what can other cities learn from Washington’s success?
Here’s how pre-K looks in one Washington classroom:
Amina, who is 4 years old and introduces herself as a writer, looks up from chopping plastic carrots. She and two of her classmates are pretending to cook a family meal together. Her “sister” Lesley, who said she is a librarian-professor, is prepping tomatoes. Their third “sister,” Madison — “I don’t work. I just sit on my computer all day,” she said — is making caramel for the salad. That doesn’t seem right, I say.
Amina shrugs. It’s an odd salad, but not out of bounds for the dramatic play center at the Parklands campus of AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School. It’s in the Shipley Terrace neighborhood of Washington, a largely low-income, African-American part of the city.
Amina gathers all the ingredients and passes me the bowl. “Here! Try some!”
Amina, Lesley and Madison are three of the more than 13,000 children enrolled in Washington’s universal public pre-K program.
The city introduced universal pre-K in 2008. Over the next decade, glittering rhetoric about pre-K’s benefits helped sell the public — and policymakers across the country — on the idea. Studies show that high-quality pre-K can advance children’s linguistic, academic and social development. Research also suggests that pre-K programs reduce the need for special education placements, raise students’ future incomes, lower incarceration rates and get parents back to work.
And yet enthusiasm for these programs has often outrun practicalities. Several studies of recent efforts to increase public pre-K have hinted that cities and states have expanded access at the cost of quality. Some expansions have been rushed and others given too little money; many face both problems.
Beside issues of politics, there are questions of what we want universal pre-K to do. “The big problem in the sector is, what do we mean by quality?” asks Jack McCarthy, AppleTree’s president and chief executive.
The range of pre-K’s promised benefits makes this a surprisingly complex question. Is the goal academic readiness, social and emotional learning, better health outcomes, access to child care, raising future incomes, decreasing the size of future prison populations — or some combination of these? Then, once we’ve defined success, how do we measure it? And, finally, how can new pre-K programs in cities like New York, San Antonio and Seattle deliver it?
A decade into building — and reforming — its universal pre-K program, Washington provides some hints.
The program is popular with parents: 73 percent of 3-year-olds and 85 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in the 2017-2018 school year. “With the pre-K participation rates that we have across the city, I think we can truly say that our public education system starts at age three,” says Miriam Calderon, who was the school district’s director of early childhood education during the program’s early years. (Now she heads Oregon’s early education system.)
The city’s enthusiasm for early education is at least partly a function of its skyrocketing cost of living. Washington designed its pre-K program to help families financially and became one of the few cities that offers it to 3-year-olds, leaving new parents with just three years of child care to cover.
It also runs all day. Most campuses provide at least six and a half hours of care and education each day. A Center for American Progress study found that Washington’s program has increased mothers’ participation in the labor force.
But quality pre-K isn’t solely — or even primarily — about helping parents afford to have children or get back to work. Analysis of universal early education programs like Quebec’s suggest that while it is reasonably straightforward to provide safe, daylong care that allows parents to return to work, it is more complicated to ensure that these programs also advance children’s development.
Across Washington, educators and administrators say that pre-K classrooms aim to close academic achievement gaps before they have grown too large. Such measurement makes sense: Just as second grade prepares children for third and middle school prepares children for high school, pre-K ought to pre-prepare children for kindergarten.
Of course, kindergarten preparation is unique. It covers a holistic span of child development, and it’s long on social and emotional skills — paying attention, working with peers, recognizing and solving conflicts. It’s about learning how to be at school and how to get the most out of it. For instance, when Amina, Lesley and Madison serve caramel salad, they’re learning to create collaboratively in a team.
Laura Steinmetz, a pre-K teacher in Washington, calls this “the underlying piece” of her work. Take wooden blocks. They develop some obvious skills: Students acquire dexterity and learn how their choices affect a structure’s stability. They learn to plan and persist in the face of failure. But there’s more, Ms. Steinmetz says. “Maybe somebody walked by and touched one of the support blocks and the whole thing fell down, so you have to learn how to manage your feelings and talk to that peer.”
Turner Elementary School’s principal, Eric Bethel, said he’s seeing the impact of the pre-K program in his kindergartners. “They’re not spending the first three or four weeks of school crying because it’s some sort of foreign place to them,” he said. “They know school routines. They have stamina.”
But high-quality pre-K isn’t only about patiently navigating imaginary salads, block towers and frustration. These social and emotional skills help students’ acquire knowledge by building their abilities to learn in group settings. Good pre-K also builds academic foundations.
At a literacy table in one Turner classroom, Tanisha Watson, a veteran pre-K teacher, reads “Be Boy Buzz” with a student. The boy prompts her to read by pointing to each word. In just two minutes, she reinforces a pile of basic literacy skills. “If I read, you’ll point, right? Are you ready? We go left to right,” she reminds him. “Do we start at the bottom or the top? What’s that period mean? O.K.! Now we need to keep going. What do we do to keep reading? We turn the page? Great!” She stretches him to think about what’s happening — “Does he seem like he’s talking loud? What do you think he’s doing here? He’s crying? How do you know? Why is he crying?” Those are the building blocks of reading.
Skilled instruction like Ms. Watson’s doesn’t come cheap. Unlike most American communities, Washington pays its pre-K teachers at rates similar to those its elementary schoolteachers get. Their salaries make up a large part of the nearly $19,000 the city spends annually on each preschooler. San Antonio, for comparison, spends just under $14,000 per child.
What’s more, Washington also uses federal Head Start funding in its pre-K sites. All district pre-K classrooms must adopt Head Start’s holistic approach to child development, which means providing access to health, nutrition and family outreach programs. In many cities, public pre-K classrooms enroll students separately from Head Start classrooms, which primarily serve children from low-income families. Washington’s systemwide funding coordination helps avoid this de facto segregation. No other city blends local and federal early education funding as smoothly on a large scale.
Most important, more than 95 percent of Washington’s pre-K seats are in public schools. This can help students acclimate to the facilities where they’ll spend their elementary school years. It can also make it easier for kindergarten to pick up precisely where pre-K leaves off.
Just five years ago, 80 percent of kindergartners at Turner Elementary started the year behind on basic print concepts, like how to hold and use a book. As the school’s pre-K program has improved — Turner’s pre-K teachers have worked with a full-time coach for three years — the data have flipped. Last year, 76 percent of incoming kindergartners had mastered those reading basics.
At both Turner Elementary and AppleTree’s Parklands campus, nearly every student is growing up in a low-income, African-American family. But Washington’s pre-K classrooms seem to be getting results with all their students.
For example, children who were learning English at schools using AppleTree’s curriculum finished pre-K performing as well as, or better than, native English-speaking peers on math and literacy tests. At AppleTree’s Columbia Heights campus, children who speak a language other than English at home — one-third of the school’s students — showed stronger growth on early literacy and math skills than their native English-speaking peers.
In 2018, the school district reported that fewer than half of 3-year-olds were meeting early literacy benchmarks when they arrived in pre-K classrooms. However, 86 percent were finishing pre-K ready for kindergarten on the cognition skills measured by the city’s early childhood assessment — and 83 percent were becoming kindergarten-ready on language metrics. More than 75 percent reached kindergarten-ready skills on fluently matching sounds with letters.
It is too early to say for certain whether Washington’s system is delivering on all of the many promises made on pre-K’s behalf. (Paradoxically, the program’s popularity makes it difficult to study, because there are few students outside the program who could make up a control group.) Right now, the earliest 3-year-olds to have enrolled in the city’s expanded pre-K system are only now arriving in the later elementary grades, where standardized academic assessments become more common. Students in Washington’s public schools have shown steady academic improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, particularly in the elementary school years. While many factors contribute to this trend — the city simultaneously embarked upon major K-12 education reforms and has seen significant demographic changes in its schools — these are grades that enroll more students who attended the city’s pre-K programs.
But it will be decades before researchers can determine whether the program has affected students’ incomes or incarceration rates as adults. So far, though, Washington’s example does suggest that a universal, full-day, well-funded, school-based, developmentally-appropriate, holistic pre-K program can improve children’s lives — if the public is patient, and willing to pay.
Conor P. Williams (@ConorPWilliams) studies educational equity as a fellow at The Century Foundation.
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