Graduate Admissions Blog

Reflections on the 9th Niemeyer series: UPK in NYC

[The views expressed in this blog posting do not reflect that of Bank Street College as a whole]

Bank Street’s ninth Niemeyer Series, Universal Pre-K in New York City, took place on April 23, 2014. In case you’re unfamiliar, The Niemeyer Series invites speakers and moderators to discuss pressing issues in education here at Bank Street’s auditorium. Dedicated to the memory of John H. Niemeyer, the series hopes to continue his legacy of making Bank Street a national voice in educational issues.

The Universal Pre-K (UPK) discussion was moderated by Sam J. Meisels, Ed. D, a former teacher and now Executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska. Panelists included Richard Buery, Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives at the NYDOE, Josh Wallack, Chief Strategy Officer at the NYCDOE, and Regina Gallagher, a Bank Street alum and Director of Goddard Riverside Head Start. Dean Virginia Roach planned and organized the event, greet visitors in some open remarks. Next, Meisels set the tone for the debate with a prepared statement which included a myriad of headlines from the media. His main point was that UPK is biologically and economically good, but “let’s do it right!” The panelists were then asked a series of questions form Meisels and later, the audience.

To the audible frustration of the teacher-filled crowd, many of the questions directed at Buery and Wallack were artfully dodged with political-speak. For example, Wallack commented that the NYCDOE was still “seeking outside wisdom” to help them shape the program – while this sentiment is wonderful, the term was used to cover the fact that not all the pieces of the program are quite ready even though it is becoming mandatory next year. Another frustrating moment for the crowd was when Wallack was asked about the cost per student to the city. He made a series of qualifying statements before finally getting to the numbers: For a 180 day Pre-K, which is 6 hours and 20mins a day, the cost per child is $10,000 per child in a certified teacher’s room, or $7,000 in a non-certified teacher’s room. It was nice to finally get the facts, but the crowd seemed uneasy. When asked about what will happen to current ½ day Pre-K programs, Wallack remarked that those programs will remain in certain areas based on surveys. While this was certainly a fair answer, it drew some confused groans from the crowd, who were wondering how a program like this would be successful with such little specificity of details so close to it’s launch. Perhaps the biggest negative reaction from the crowd came when Wallack seemed happy about the fact that there would be one (1) experienced coach per every 45 UPK teachers (this number is down from 1:90, but still…).

Frustrations aside, Wallack had many good things to say as well. There are already 20,000 kids in Pre-K in NYC, which is a large base of success to build on. The administration also seems intent on getting good, qualified teachers to do this task. There are upsides to the “universal” mentality Wallack pointed out as well. For example, he said that with “universal” Pre-K, money and resources don’t have to be spent on determining who qualifies for inclusion in the program or who doesn’t. He echoed Meisels sentiments that this is a good way to prevent problems down the road, especially if a child has learning issues which could go unoticed until elementary school.

Buery seemed a bit more off-the-cuff than Wallack, which was at times refreshing but perhaps too cavalier. At one point, Buery made an elephant-in-the-room observation that a successful UPK program would be an important PR victory for the mayor. This statement was odd. I wasn’t sure if this was intended to be a Colbert-like joke, or if he was implying that UPK’s success would be good for the mayor’s office and that NYC is better off with a mayor they perceive is successful. Either way, what did that have to do with education? He admitted that issues with salaries for teachers will be fixed once the program is successful. This drew a sharp response from Gallagher, who noted that as soon as salaries are tied to performance, we run the risk of over-testing to get results at such a young age. Later Buery assured the crowd that ELL and SPED students would be included, and that some ½ day programs would convert to full day programs. When questioned about physical space (“real estate”), he said they still have work to do, to find out if some neighborhoods have more than others. The administration is also working to get data from charter schools about available space. Similar to Wallack, Buery communicated to the crowd that the issue is being taken seriously. To me, he also communicated that there is a concerning lack of information about implementing UPK, especially in such a short amount of time.

After discussing with my colleagues who attended, and others who tuned in to the live stream, we all agreed that Gallagher was somewhat of a hero for us up there. Completely unpolitical, healthily skeptical, and unafraid to ask questions, she felt like a voice for the teachers in the audience. She proudly made the point that at the Pre-K age, the most important thing is play – structured play, free play, play with others. Play should be supported with blocks, picture books, acting and other forms of extension. Will these resources be available? Will funding go to these things or to testing materials? With all the talk of “success”, how can we be sure UPK students will have the time to do these things, which are impossible to quantify on paper? Gallagher asked in so many words. She mentioned that her classroom had failed an ECKERS assessment because her iguana’s cage was too close to the block area, inhibiting students from using blocks effectively. It is these kinds of penalties/regulations which frighten young teachers away from the profession. If everything is about outcomes, the curriculum becomes bland, robotic, and time for play decreases.

Echoing some of the recent debates on standardized testing, which we covered here on the blog, Gallagher seemed most concerned about having too much emphasis on quantifying progress at such a young age. This tends to happen with testing, but teachers may teach to the numbers if their salary is tied to it. Teachers should be trained, certainly, but not told that their children MUST meet certain criteria to be deemed “successful” Pre-Kers. While I fully agree with her, I have a nagging voice in my head saying that there must be some way we can show progress on paper, though. How can we be sure everyone is getting a quality education?

I drew a strong connection to learning about the history of education in this country from my EDUC563 “Foundations” coursework. The idea of universal education in the U.S. goes back to 1862 and the Land Grant Act – by making college available to all, the idea was that the whole country would benefit. So UPK isn’t all that revolutionary in concept, as some have made it out to be. The universal education idea is (lowercase d) democratic, in Counts’ usage of the word, benefitting all by providing them utilitarian and practical skills to navigate the world through interacting with people and with meaningful work. How democratic is the mayor’s intention with UPK? Was Burey’s off-the-cuff remark about the mayor’s PR numbers really a flubbed joke? It’d be great to get some more clarification on what he meant.

I think that we should strive to provide universal education, because we can. I support this effort, flawed as it is, because I think it is a step in the right direction. But as Meisels said from the start, how do we “do it right”?