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Posted at 1:30 PM ET, 02/26/2011

D.C. reaches pre-school milestone

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by HyeSook Chung, executive director of D.C. Action for Children and member of the advisory board of T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood D.C. She spent 14 years working to improve the outcomes of young children and as an infant toddler specialist to support Early Head Start programs throughout the country.

By HyeSook Chung
Today in Washington D.C. there are enough preschool and Pre-K slots for every 3- and 4-year-old child seeking a spot. This is a milestone worth applauding -- but the next phase is more daunting. We now must work to ensure that all children not only have access to free preschool and Pre-K in their neighborhood, but that the early education they receive is of the highest quality.

D.C. officials have in recent years worked to expand access to early education for all children. While Mayor Vincent Gray was chairman of the D.C. Council, he spearheaded legislation mandating universal Pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-old children by 2014.

According to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, there were enough slots this year among traditional public and charter schools, community-based organizations participating in the Child Care Subsidy Program, and private providers to provide services (child care or pre-k) to every child seeking services ages 3 or 4.

But the fact is that early education in the District is still a very mixed bag. Despite the vast expansion of slots, too many children across our city are still entering kindergarten unprepared. Research tells us that if children are behind by the end of the third grade, they may never catch up, no matter how much we spend on remediation.

One undeniable factor is “teacher effectiveness.” In K-12 education, this has become a very loaded term, which the Gates Foundation is spending millions to define. But teacher effectiveness is just as important in the early education community -- and is potentially more complex.

For one thing, we don’t have “objective” measures of quality like test scores. Thankfully, in this achievement-obsessed era, we still don’t subject children ages 3 and 4 to standardized tests. Assessments must be rooted in observation, which is by definition subjective.

Ongoing professional development is equally important in early education, but it is sorely lacking. Early childhood teachers must be warm, attentive and nurturing, but they also need to be well-versed in the latest research-backed curricula as well as health and safety guidelines.

Currently, most centers close for a few days a year for teacher training. But the District’s Pre-K legislation requires lead teachers in early childhood classrooms to have an associate’s degree in a related field and be enrolled in a B.A. program by 2014. It’s ambitious, especially considering that fewer than one in three early childhood professionals at centers in the District have a B.A. and many of the rest lack the necessary pre-requisites, including proficiency in English.

Our early childhood teachers absolutely need and deserve our support to increase their skills, but their employers are understandably concerned that they may not be able to retain their staff after higher education. We have heard from center directors who worry that their teachers may seek more lucrative employment — as kindergarten teachers! In Washington D.C., the median salary for a teacher with a Child Development Associate credential working at a child care center is $23,200, barely above the federal poverty level for a family of four. It’s not surprising that 45 percent of centers in the city report losing staff every year.

There are a couple of innovative approaches in the District worth noting that may help address these challenges. One is a scholarship program called T.E.A.C.H. Based on a national model, the scholarship requires employers and teachers to sign a one-year contract, including a raise, and for both to bear a part of the tuition.

The second is an assessment tool by the D.C.-based AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation called Quality Indicators. AppleTree just received a federal grant to pilot this set of criteria that would create some consistency around how early childhood teachers are given feedback so that they can improve their effectiveness in the classroom. The tool rates them in more than 20 areas, including student engagement, relevant instruction, time management and classroom organization.

The Pre-K legislation is a start, but to ensure quality in early education, we need more ideas and investments like these coupled with clear benchmarks to measure our progress – including how children who complete Pre-K perform in later grades. If we have learned anything from decades of K-12 education reform, there are no easy answers. We need to follow data and best practices to know what works, but we also need to get to work right away. Our children are counting on us to get this right.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 26, 2011; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  Early Childhood, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  early childhood education, early education, head start, pre-k, preschool, quality pre-k  
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Yes, this is something that will really make a difference. Teachers have been lobbying for preschool for many years. But, as you say, it must be high quality to be successful.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | February 26, 2011 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Pre-school is such an important age-group; it's when so much development is taking place, language and coordination skills are developing, and where early diagnosis of learning issues can take place. The teachers of this age group have a lot of responsibility on their shoulders, and they deserve and the training, support and comparable salaries to other teaching professionals.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | February 26, 2011 4:06 PM | Report abuse

I honestly hope it works, but what next if not this? We never have a Plan B and the last Plan A didn't work.

Posted by: jbeeler | February 26, 2011 6:22 PM | Report abuse

From Mimi Carter:

"This is why I was really excited about DC School Chancellor Michele Rhee. She was one of the first from DCPS to say and recognize publicly that quality Pre-K was critical.

And it was even more critical for DC's kids, 85 percent of which qualify for free and reduced price lunch. The current DCPS combination of abject poverty and lack of quality Pre-K teachers was a prescription for human capital loss.

To visualize the enormity of the task of reforming DCPS, recognize that only 8 percent of eighth graders were reading on grade level when Rhee arrived, and yet a majority of teachers had received annual satisfactory reviews.

But Rhee recognized this, saw the "toxic" stress these children were suffering from. She knew she had to get these four year olds into quality programs and fast, or she was going to lose them. In just three years she's made huge gains in Pre-K:

Since 2007, DCPS has added more than 1,300 preschool, pre-Kindergarten, and Head Start seats across all eight wards.

For 2010-2011, this will mean 25 new classrooms across 18 schools, and represents an increase of 225 preschool seats and 200 Pre-K seats over 2009-2010.

Already in the 2010-2011 school year Kindergarten enrollment has increased by 9% over the last school year.
Rhee's last three years in DCPS have been notable and noteworthy. She has implemented controversial merit pay and teacher evaluation systems, and recruited aggressively for some of the best educational talent in the country. And as Education Trust's Kati Haycock says, "No matter what you think about the politics, DC Public Schools are having real results."

Prior to 2007, less than a third of elementary students were performing math at grade-level; after two years close to half of DCPS elementary students are proficient in math and reading. Secondary students have achieved double-digit growth demonstrating tremendous progress."

Posted by: frankb1 | February 26, 2011 6:46 PM | Report abuse

Sorry Frank, you can't give Michelle Rhee credit for this one. Infact, when she first came to DCPS she did not understand or see the need for Pre-K in a K-12 system and was looking for ways to get rid of the strong and growing DCPS Pre-K program. It was not until parents demaned additional spaces in the popular and full program that Ms. Rhee saw a way to increase declining enrollment in K-12 classes. The Pre-K legislation and funding were in place to continue the Pre-K expansion when Rhee arrived. One of her first acts was to stop the plans that were in progress to add additional pre-k classes. Parental pressure made her recind her directive to stop the Pre-K expansion days before the start of school. As with many politicans, Ms. Rhee learned the retoric and effectively used it to further her agenda. She never had any real commitment to high quality early childhood education. In the 1970's DCPS was one of the first public school districts in the country to integrate high quality Pre-K into the K-12 curriculum. Just before Rhee took over, the DCPS Pre-K program received one of the highest national rankings of high quality based on the National Institute for Early Education Research. It has not received such a ranking since she took over.

Posted by: highquality4kids | March 1, 2011 3:39 PM | Report abuse

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