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The New York 'Miracle' and Other Early-Ed. Highlights from SXSWedu

You wouldn't know that early education was all the rage in the education policymaker community from the paucity of sessions on the subject at the 4-day long SXSWedu education conference in Austin, Texas. 

Click to see more SXSWedu coverage.

After combing through the agenda several times, I could only find two panels focused exclusively on the early years at this largely technology-focused confernce. (Let me know if I missed one!) The first featured Sarah Roseberry Lytle, a researcher from the University of Washington. I'll share my conversation with her about early brain development on the blog sometime soon.

The second featured Richard Buery, New York City's deputy mayor for strategic policy initiatives, aka public preschool, and Libby Doggett, the assistant U.S. secretary of education for early learning.

"I would hope to see more panels on early childhood at what is becoming one of the premier education conferences in the country," Buery said.

Aside from the lack of attention to early education, Buery didn't have much to complain about. Doggett was highly complimentary of New York City's addition of 33,000 preschool seats in the 2014-15 school year. Doing that meant completing 2,000 facility inspections, hiring 1,000 new teachers and spending additional thousands of hours recruiting 4-year-olds to the new program. Doggett called the work the city did on inspecting facilities, recruiting children, finding money and hiring teachers a "miracle."

"Across the country next year, we're going to do what New York did in a few months," Doggett said in reference to the sheer number of new public preschool spots for children created in the city.

Buery, in turn, heaped praise on the city's workers—from the teachers to the firefighters—for answering all his team's requests with: "We'll get it done." Without the whole city working together under the leadership of a focused mayor, Buery said, it never would have been possible to move so fast.

Of course, some have criticized New York City for moving with such alacrity.  Buery's response was unapologetic.

"Every 4-year-old in New York has only one chance to be 4-years-old," Buery said. "It's urgent for that child that we offer preschool now."

An issue that did not come up during the panel, but that has also dogged New York City officials was the question of why they didn't create a targeted program for low-income children who arguably need preschool the most.

"Just like we don't limit 4th grade to poor people, it's not clear why our preschool system would be any different," Beury said. "It's an arbitrary idea that education starts at 5. Kids brains don't start developing at 5. It doesn't make any sense why would limit our system to just some of our citizens."

Beury also pointed out that in a city like New York, people with solid middle class salaries can still struggle to pay the upwards of $15,000 a year on private care. Besides, he added, it makes political sense to engage parents at all socioeconomic levels.

New York City officials plan to add another 20,000 preschool students to their public school rolls next year, bringing their whole program to a grand total of more than 70,000 children. Neither the progress the city has made so far nor the audacity of its future goal received much pushback from the audience, who, after three days at SXSWedu, had likely grown accustomed to the notion of massive change in the educational system. Though, arguably, most of what's been said here was more aspirational than concrete, unlike New York's new, brick-and-mortar universal preschool program. 

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