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'Preschool Nation': Summit Weighs State of Early-Childhood Education

CORRECTION

By guest blogger Madeline Will

As we prepare to mark the 50th anniversary of Head Start, it's a good time to ponder the current state of preschool in the United States. Are early-learning opportunities reaching enough children? Are they quality programs?

Those were among the questions considered by participants Tuesday at what was billed as the first Preschool Nation Summit, co-hosted by Los Angeles Universal Preschool (a nonprofit group working to provide access to quality early-childhood education programs in Los Angeles County) and Scholastic Inc.

The three panels at the summit, which was held in New York City and live-streamed, included leaders of various advocacy and nonprofit groups, as well as local, state and national education leaders.

Much of the conversation centered around the theme: How does the U.S. become a "preschool nation," or a country that believes all children deserve high-quality early-learning opportunities?

"Change happens only when you venture out a big idea and then relentlessly pursue it," said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who gave the keynote address. "This summit is a declaration that we have to get on a bigger path and then stick to that path."

De Blasio has pushed to get more than 50,000 4-year-olds into the city's full-day prekindergarten programs this year. By the following year, his administration hopes to boost that number to 70,000.

"It's a matter of will, a matter of resources, a matter of belief we're going to get this done," he told the crowd. "We don't accept the notion that there's a plan B."

The panelists applauded New York City for its work in early-childhood education, while acknowledging that much more is to be done nationally.

But Suzanne Immerman, senior advisor to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and director of strategic partnerships at the Education Department, said some progress already has been made on a federal level. For example, she said states can soon apply for a total of $250 million in preschool development grants, which are aimed at helping states to expand their early-childhood education programs. The Obama administration had originally asked for $75 billion, and Immerman said she hoped that investment would take place over the next decade "to get to that preschool nation that we're all dreaming of, one day."

Still, other panelists urged Congress to find more money to spend on early-childhood education.

But when policy-makers—national or state—fund early-education programs, they often want to see results, panelists pointed out, which brings up the sticky question of how to best assess toddlers.

"We don't want to make pre-K the new K," said Carmen Fariña, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education and one of the panelists. "We don't want to bring so much assessment into pre-K that we bring the stress factor, one year less. Yes, we need to evaluate, but be very careful in what that evaluation looks like."

Teacher satisfaction and student attendance are alternative ways to gauge the success of a pre-K program, she said.

Among the other topics discussed: how to ensure quality programs and access for all children, and how to best reach parents and encourage them to engage in enrichment activities with their children from birth.

Readers: Let's keep the discussion going—add your thoughts on a "preschool nation" and how best to get there in the comments below.

*Correction: The original version of this post included an incorrect name for the co-host of the event. It is Los Angeles Universal Preschool.

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