(Very) early education

With a major but little-noticed move, New York City signals that learning starts at birth

PHOTO: Rob Bennett
Mayor Bill de Blasio visits pre-K class at P.S. 239 with Chancellor Carmen Fariña in 2014.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans last month to extend pre-K to 3-year-olds, a massive expansion of his popular Pre-K for All program. But a little-noticed element of the proposal could be just as significant: He called for the Department of Education to take over programs that reach children as young as six weeks old.

As planned, the department would create a cradle-to-college approach that shepherds students and families from infancy through 12th grade. The shift signals a recognition that learning starts at birth — and so do the inequities that drag down academic achievement later in life.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of the Bank Street College of Education, called the decision “a big deal” and said it would put New York City in line with other nations that already prioritize infant and toddler learning.

“If you aren’t creating a really nurturing environment where there’s opportunity for learning and exploration for infants and toddlers,” he said, “you’re actually cementing a set of challenges in terms of how their brains develop and what their opportunities are going to be once they get to the point of pre-K or kindergarten.”

Under the proposal, the education department would assume responsibility for EarlyLearn programs, which currently fall under the purview of the city’s child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services. EarlyLearn was launched under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg to streamline services for low-income families enrolled in Head Start pre-K or home-based daycare, for example.

Now, the city plans to take that consolidation even further, with Pre-K for All serving as a model. The city has been lauded for quickly rolling out universal pre-K for 4-year-olds while also ensuring quality through teacher training and regular site reviews.

“We really want to extend that structure to the younger ages and help all these programs get better,” Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack said in an interview.

At a city budget hearing Tuesday, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the mayor’s executive budget proposal includes more than $20 million to improve EarlyLearn programs. She also stressed that bringing early childhood services under the Department of Education will help students make a seamless transition to elementary school and enlist parents as early partners in their children’s education.

“Our commitment is just to start with kids — especially with literacy skills — as early as possible,” Fariña told Council members.

Consolidating programs could also simplify a process that now forces low-income parents to navigate four different city agencies for child care and creates a compliance maze for providers.

“It’s just easier when you’re dealing with one coherent system,” Wallack said.

Success is far from guaranteed. With more than a million students, the education department already oversees the country’s largest school system. EarlyLearn programs serve about 20,000 children ages 3 and younger.

Experts said the DOE will have to resist the perhaps natural inclination to focus too narrowly on preparing children for academics, when much of early childhood education should center around social and emotional learning.

“There are right and wrong ways to do education for those children, but children at that age are learning,” said Elliot Regenstein, senior vice president of advocacy at the Ounce of Prevention Fund. “Ideally, though, you’re going to create a segment of the education system where the joy of learning is actively cultivated.”

It remains to be seen just how sweeping the shift in responsibility will be. At least initially, the streamlining will only go so far: Voucher programs that help families afford child care are expected to remain under ACS.

Gregory Brender, co-director of policy and advocacy at the United Neighborhood Houses, which pushes for affordable childcare, said there are still unanswered questions. Discrepancies in pay between educators in city-run and privately-run centers, he said, will be chief among the concerns that will now fall to the DOE to resolve.

“What does [this move] look like for parents? We don’t really know yet,” he said. “And we don’t even know what that looks like for providers.”

Measuring success

New York City wants to know: How effective is its training for pre-K teachers?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Students in P.S. 277 in the Bronx were among New York City's first 3-K for All cohort. The program is an expansion of the city's free pre-K for 4-year-olds.

In New York City’s breakneck effort to offer free preschool to all 4-year olds, officials have banked on teacher training as a key way to ensure that quality keeps up with access.

About three years into Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature education policy achievement, the education department and New York University are partnering to study whether that teacher training is doing the trick. One of the first studies of its kind of New York City’s high-profile program, the results could be used to fine-tune the city’s training programs to increase their impact on student achievement.

“The question for us is, ‘How do we make pre-K better, as fast as we can?’” said Josh Wallack, a deputy chancellor for the education department and a principal investigator for the study. “This study will point us in the right direction, we believe.”

Pre-K for All now enrolls about 70,000 students — providing free public preschool to any family who wants it, according to the city. When launching its program, the city homed in on research from pre-K initiatives in Boston and Tulsa that showed teacher training and coaching had an outsize impact on student performance.

“The mayor and chancellor believe that the evidence is in: We know that high-quality pre-K leads to improved student outcomes,” Wallack said. “So our research agenda really focuses on the methods we use to help programs improve quality, and one of the ways we do that is through teacher training.”

The NYU study will use measures of student behavior such as self-regulation, third-grade test scores, and how often students are held back to track the impact of the city’s different teacher training programs. The city assigns its pre-K providers to four training tracks, each with a different focus.

Those tracks are: Pre-K Explore, which focuses on math; Pre-K Thrive, which emphasizes child behavior and working with families; and Pre-K Create, which is arts-driven. A fourth track, Pre-K Inspire, gives schools more flexibility to choose what type of training they receive from the city.

The study will compare outcomes of students who attended schools in the Explore, Thrive and Create tracks to those who attended schools that choose the Inspire track. About half of all pre-K sites participate in the Inspire track, according to figures provided by the education department.

“Our expectation is that some of the models may support teacher development and kids’ learning more effectively than other models,” said Pamela Morris, a principal investigator for the grant, and vice dean for research and faculty affairs at NYU Steinhardt. “Understanding that process will be important.”

One common pitfall of teacher training is that educators often struggle to put it into practice in their classrooms. The NYU study will also measure how well pre-K teachers use the skills they learn.

Funded by a $5 million grant from Institute of Education Sciences — the research and data arm of the U.S. Education Department — the five-year study is designed to be a partnership between the city and NYU. School district-university partnerships are common, with the goal being to produce research that helps districts improve their practices.

“It really infuses the system with a huge amount of research to build this quality infrastructure,” Morris said.

Russ Whitehurst, former director of the Institute, said there is often another reason why such partnerships are necessary: to gain access to data that can otherwise be difficult to get. The need for data can create pressure on researchers to work collaboratively with districts, he said.

“It’s the nature of how these things work,” said Whitehurst, who is now a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. “You sort of have to play nice to get someone to want to partner with you.”

Wallack said the city has experts who can help crunch data for the study, but the bulk of that job will be in the hands of NYU researchers, who Wallack said would retain their independence.

“It’s just important to emphasize that, in the end, NYU will really be running the analysis here — and the analysis will be based on objective measures,” he said.

NYU and the education department have partnered in the past, and Morris said the city has proven itself to be committed to transparency. She said a “very strong” advisory board would help “ensure the research integrity.”

“I would not be engaging in the partnership if I didn’t think the city would be open,” she said. “They’ve been really terrific about seeing where the data leads them.”

Starting young

New York City child care centers are serving more infants, but for poor families seats are scarce

PHOTO: Logan Zabel

Yvette Cora, who works at an East New York day care center, turns down a steady stream of parents asking to enroll their babies.

The center where she works, St. Malachy Child Development Center in East New York, has a contract from New York City to care for babies and toddlers from low-income families. But most won’t get offered a spot until their child is at least 18 months old — it takes six months to a year to get off the baby room waitlist.

“I refer them to home providers, and sometimes after they go visit those homes they come back here and say they prefer it here,” said Cora.

It’s an increasingly common experience for day care providers who work with the city. As interest in early childhood education has grown in the city, more families are seeking spots in day care programs for their babies — but the programs for poor children are actually losing capacity, even as programs that serve more affluent families grow.

With the upcoming transition of the city’s subsidized child care system to the Department of Education (DOE), it remains to be seen how the DOE will prioritize infant care, and whether the agency will find a way to increase the capacity for this age group in centers.

In the past two years, the number of slots for children under 2 years old increased by 10 percent in licensed early education centers citywide — from 9,853 spots in 2015 to 10,806 in 2017, even as total capacity in centers has grown by only 2 percent. That’s according to the Center for New York City Affairs’s analysis of data provided by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which issues licenses to the centers.

At the same time, the child care centers that contract with the city to serve low-income families have been losing their capacity to take in infants and toddlers. The number of openings for children under 2 years old in those centers fell by 8 percent during the same time period, amounting to about 100 lost slots for young children.

The shift means that while Bright Horizons, one for-profit day care provider that charges up to $40,000 per year for full-time care, is growing, there are fewer spots for families whose total annual income is less than that.

“The capacity has grown, but not for poor people,” said Kathleen Hopkins, vice president of the Family Health Centers at NYU Langone Department of Community Programs that oversees two centers that provide infant care. “There are still not a lot of options for poor families.”

The scarcity of choice for poor families with infants is largely driven by cost. Infants and toddlers are the most expensive age group to serve in child care centers. Most babies in the subsidized child care system are placed in the far less-expensive but also less-regulated subsidized family child care programs, where women get paid meager wages to look after neighborhood kids in their homes, often their living rooms.

But studies nationwide have found family child care programs to be, on average, of lower quality than center-based care, and there’s been a growing interest in increasing the number of slots for infants and toddlers in subsidized New York City child care centers.

Some say that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s universal pre-K expansion and public awareness campaigns such as “Talk to Your Baby” added urgency to this discussion by raising awareness of the importance of receiving high-quality care during the first few years of life.

Staff at the city’s child care resource and referral agencies say they now see a growing number of parents from all backgrounds who believe that early education centers are better equipped than informal arrangements with friends and family to provide quality care and prepare young kids for school. “It’s a trend of the last five years,” says Nancy Kolben, executive director of the child care resource and referral agency Center for Children’s Initiatives.

Early childhood centers that enroll only families who can pay without public subsidies have responded by charging parents more money to offset the high costs inherent in baby care, including expensive sprinkler systems, ground floor classrooms, and that babies be cared for in small groups.

But at subsidized child care centers, rising rents combined with flat city funding have made infant care elusive, despite efforts from ACS to encourage growth.

“Everything we have seen says it’s a money-losing proposition to do [infant care] as a center-based facility because of the infrastructure you need,” said James Matison, executive director of Brooklyn Kindergarten Society, which oversees five early education centers that serve low-income families.

“We lose a lot [of space] if we try to incorporate cribs and changing tables, and enrollment numbers go down,” says Maria Contreras-Collier, executive director of Cypress Hills Child Care Corporation.
Some directors say that serving infants is easier at large child care centers that can dedicate a few rooms to babies without cutting back on overall enrollment.

Hanover Place Child Care, a center in Downtown Brooklyn, is a case in point. A large school with a total capacity for over 300 children, it accepts more vouchers to care for infants than any other center in the city. In recent years, as surrounding neighborhoods gentrified, it has begun attracting families who pay privately.

But after a special-education preschool it shared its building and some staff with closed, Hanover Place lost a security guard, art teacher and a nurse. Meanwhile, rents in the neighborhood skyrocketed as new construction crept closer and closer.

Some local parents fear it is only a matter of time before the Brooklyn real estate boom will lead the center to close its doors entirely, or at least close doors to families unable to pay the tuition necessary to keep them open.

This story is adapted from a policy brief from the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.