in focus

Are principals prepared to evaluate pre-K teachers?

PHOTO: Emma Sokoloff-Rubin
A pre-K teacher at New Bridges Elementary works with two students in their classroom's "math center."

A principal walking into a noisy classroom has a choice to make. Is the noise evidence of students engaging with each other and learning social skills? Or is it the mark of an out-of-control class?

Most elementary-school principals are accustomed to making that call when observing teachers in older grades, as part of the typical coaching and evaluation process. But the markers of a successful pre-K classroom are different and not always intuitive, experts say, and an increasing number of principals will be tasked with identifying them as the city’s pre-K expansion kicks into gear.

“How do you know if you have a good person? How do you help her get better? Is it OK that teachers are on the floor?” said Sherry Cleary, director of the NYC Early Childhood Professional Development Institute. “Some principals might see that as a problem, when we see that as perfect.”

With 140 schools set to add pre-K seats in September, some for the first time, the role principals play in evaluating those teachers is coming under increased scrutiny. Cleary, whose institute is working with the Department of Education to prepare pre-K teachers this summer, said she recommended that the city also provide extra training for principals, who often have limited exposure to early childhood education.

So far, the city has provided a day-long summer training on pre-K assessment, which Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye said drew 130 administrators, including public school principals and their counterparts in community organizations. Kaye said the department plans to provide ongoing training.

Experts say the training is important to keep principals from inadvertently steering pre-K teachers in the wrong direction. Laura Bornfreund, deputy director of the New America Foundation’s early education initiative, said that if principals apply to a pre-K classroom the lens they have developed for observing older grades, they could end up recommending against the sort of self-directed, noisy play four-year-olds need.

“It’s absolutely a concern,” she said.

Some districts, such as Washington, D.C., have developed pre-K specific teacher observation rubrics to guide administrators, though the city’s pre-K evaluation guidelines, called Teaching for the 21st Century, make no specific mention of pre-K.

Pre-K students play at New Bridges Elementary.
PHOTO: Emma Sokoloff-Rubin
Pre-K students play at New Bridges Elementary.

Cheryl Olhson, who works in the early childhood division of D.C. Public Schools, said that when the district’s current teacher evaluation system was first rolled out during the 2009-10 school year, an identical rubric was used for observations in all grades.

District officials decided to revise the tool based on feedback from educators in pre-K and kindergarten, Olhson said, and it now encourages evaluators to look positively on teachers who foster learning through questions and small-group play instead of explaining concepts to a whole class at once.

In New York City, pre-K teachers are evaluated differently from teachers in older grades, but the difference is more frustrating than helpful, administrators said.

The state’s old “satisfactory/unsatisfactory” rating system still holds for pre-K instructors, though teachers in other grades have seen their evaluation system shift to one with more frequent observations and new rating options.

“It doesn’t make sense that they wouldn’t use the same system, since they’re in the school,” Jodi Friedman, the assistant principal overseeing pre-K expansion at P.S. 63-S.T.A.R. Academy in the East Village, said of pre-K teachers. “They are still part of the teachers union, they’re still paid for by the budget.”

According to union officials, the atypical evaluation system for pre-K is the result of a legal distinction that left pre-K teachers out of the changes to state teacher evaluation law, and the city’s corresponding plan, even though they are integrated into public schools.

Since the state doesn’t define teachers of four-year-olds as “classroom teachers,” changes to the evaluation system for pre-K teachers would need to be negotiated by the city and the teachers union.

As more cities and states expand pre-K offerings, questions of how best to evaluate teachers are taking on new urgency, said Bornfreund, whose research at the New America Foundation focuses in part on teacher evaluations.

“More states seem to be including pre-K teachers in the system when those teachers are working in a public school. That seems to be where things are heading,” Bornfreund said.

In the meantime, some city principals have created their own workarounds. At New Bridges Elementary in Brooklyn, Principal Kevyn Bowles said he and his pre-K teachers agreed that he would use the new system for their observations. To comply with city policy, he still rates them either satisfactory or unsatisfactory at the end of the school year.

Anna Allanbrook, principal of the Brooklyn New School, said she also rates pre-K teachers using the old system but gives them more frequent feedback than is technically required.

“Teachers aren’t satisfactory or unsatisfactory; they’re more complicated than that. There are things they do well, things they do poorly, and things they’re working on, like any professional,” Allanbrook said.

By the numbers

As city gears up for year three of its pre-K expansion, applications hold steady

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

More than 68,000 New York City children applied for full-day pre-K this year, jumpstarting the third year of the city’s expansion, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Thursday.

The total number of applications is in line with last year’s total, but the Bronx and Manhattan both saw drops in the number of families that applied. The Bronx had a 5 percent decrease, from 14,280 applications last year to 13,529.

Brooklyn, the borough with the greatest number of families who applied for pre-kindergarten, saw an increase, with 22,046 families applying — up from 21,500 families last year. Staten Island and Queens saw marginal increases.

The number of applications is just shy of de Blasio’s original goal of enrolling 70,000 four-year-olds in pre-K. The city pointed out that the number of applications represents three times the number of children enrolled in full-day pre-K before the expansion started in 2014.

De Blasio’s push for universal pre-K has largely been seen as a success, with seats generally meeting or surpassing quality standards. A recent, limited survey found that families said that pre-K saved them money and helped their children learn.

This year, the city has made a few changes to the application process. The application period opened earlier to give families more time to decide where to apply. Families will also receive offers in early May, a month earlier than last year.

Families who have not yet applied will be able to apply to programs with available seats from May 2 to May 20.

pre-k report card

City touts record 68,500 students in pre-K, releases data on program quality

PHOTO: Rob Bennett/Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio
Mayor Bill de Blasio visits Sunnyside Community Services Pre-K in Queens on March 14, 2014.

The city released new data Friday about the quality of its rapidly expanded pre-kindergarten program, which officials touted as evidence that the program has maintained high standards even as it enrolled nearly 50,000 additional students over the past two years.

With free full-day preschool as the centerpiece of his education agenda, Mayor Bill de Blasio has more than tripled enrollment since he took office — leaving some observers to wonder whether the city was trading quantity of seats for quality. The new data, compiled from reviews of a portion of the city’s 1,800 pre-K sites that were conducted from 2012 to the present, shows that the quality of New York’s pre-K program is on par with other cities.

The inspected sites on average met or surpassed the national average on a measure of teacher-student interactions, according to review of 555 cites. On a different measure, 77 percent of reviewed sites earned a 3.4 or above on a 7-point scale, which city officials said is the benchmark that programs must reach to have a positive impact on students.

However, Steven Barnett, a professor at Rutgers who is an expert on preschool programs, said that programs should strive to score a five or higher on that scale. The results are promising, he added, but should be seen as a baseline that the city should improve upon.

“They’re OK, but they’re not nearly as good as they should be five years from now,” he said. “It’s not an overnight process.”

Officials also announced that pre-K enrollment reached over 68,500 — just shy of de Blasio’s goal of 70,000 — and said that a recent crop of new students came primarily from low-income backgrounds. Of the 3,000 students who have enrolled since September, 90 percent live in zip codes with incomes below the city’s median.

The pre-K expansion has been one of de Blasio’s only initiatives to garner positive reviews from most observers.

“We’re proud Pre-K for All is performing on a level with some of the most highly-regarded programs in the nation,” de Blasio said in a statement.

The education department used two observation-based measures for the report.

The first, known as the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, focused on how teachers interact with students. It uses smiling and laughter to gauge school climate and judges the quality of questioning in a class. The second, called the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale, used room set-up and student hygiene, as well as the quality of instruction.

More than 1,000 pre-K programs were evaluated using the second measure in the past three years. On average, they scored 3.9 on the 7-point scale. City officials said a 3.4 is correlated with “improved student outcomes,” including better reading, math, thinking, and social skills.

Barnett, who has studied New Jersey’s celebrated pre-K expansion, said it’s encouraging that categories like “language” and “interaction” were scored higher than “space and furnishings” or “personal care routines.” That implies physical space and classroom routines weighed down the ratings, not teacher instruction, he said.

New York’s scores align with pre-K programs in other cities. New Jersey’s Abbott program scored a 4.0 on the ECERS-R scale in 2002-03, just 0.1 points higher than New York’s rating.

Not all of the city’s 1,800 pre-K sites were evaluated, but soon the city plans to assess all programs. Every three years, each pre-K program should receive both ratings, city officials said.

City officials said they will direct more resources to pre-K programs with low scores on these measures, including extra social workers or more professional development.

They did not offer any specific plans to close struggling pre-K programs based on these observations, though they said that is a possibility in the future. The officials also said they would consider a site’s scores when considering whether to renew providers’ contracts.

For K-12 schools, the city publishes data in annual progress reports for parents. City officials did not say they plan to present pre-K information in a similar way, though all of the data is available on their website.