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Is the Pre-K Movement Doomed to Replicate the Flaws of the K-12 System?

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a forum on Rick Hess's new book, The Same Thing Over and Over, which argues that current iterations of school reform are doomed to fall short because they fail to challenge fundamental premises of our current educational system that are ill-suited for contemporary realities and what we need our educational system to do. Rick, as always, makes a provocative argument, and the rock star panel of Tony Bennett, Paul Pastorek, and Stefanie Sanford was also in top form. (You can watch the whole thing here).

But something bothered me: I spend a lot of my professional time working in and studying a part of the education space--early childhood education--that does not have a lot of the established systems that Rick identifies as obstacles in K-12 (Rick quips that current education reform battles are a debate between ideas of the 19th and early 20th century--parts of early childhood, which still relies heavily on home-based and charitable provision, could be said to be in the 18th century). And the early childhood sector does have some of the features--increased parent choice and competition, diverse delivery, lots of families using arrangements cobbled together from a variety of sources--that Rick and his fellow panelists have argued are needed in K-12.

But very few informed observers would argue that our current early childhood non-system is delivering the results we need for young children. Young children enter our public schools with tremendous learning gaps that leave poor and minority children far short of the skills and knowledge they need for school readiness. Educational quality is poor, even in publicly funded programs. And some childcare providers are of such low quality they may even be harming children's development and threatening their safety.

Unfortunately, some early childhood and pre-k advocates seem to think that the way to solve these problems is by replicating in the early childhood space some of the very features--particularly teacher credentialing systems--that Rick and his co-panelists bemoan in K-12. While there are clearly features of the K-12 sector that would be good to bring to ECE, it's unlikely that simply extending the current flawed K-12 system down to 3- and 4-year-olds will produce the results we want.

The challenge, then, is to think about how to build new systems for educating our youngest children that combine the best feature of the current early childhood system--including parent choice and diverse provision--with the best of the K-12 space--including universal access and reasonable funding levels--all while avoiding replicating the most dysfunctional features of the K-12 system in the ECE space.

Unfortunately, we rarely talk or think this way about early childhood or systemic reform. Most conversations about universal pre-k focus on programs rather than a system. Many K-12 school reformers have seemed largely uninterested in pre-k--seeing it as at best a nice thing to do but not their bailiwick and, at worst, an excuse and distraction from the core issues of K-12 reform--and as a result are unaware of many promising innovations in that space--such as the Classroom Assessment Scoring System and Texas Early Education Model--that could provide valuable lessons, models, and cases-in-point for K-12 reform. At the same time, pre-k advocates seem largely uninformed by the critiques Rick and others have made of the current K-12 system. And the two groups almost never talk to one another.

That's dumb and it's a huge missed opportunity for both sectors. K-12 reformers, as Rick notes, fight tooth and nail for marginal improvements in an entrenched K-12 system. They could potentially accomplish a lot more, faster, by working to build the system right from the ground up in the ECE space, and then using that system as a model and leverage for transforming elements of K-12. And pre-k advocates will accomplish more over the long run if they think in terms of systems rather than programs and to avoid extending the shortcoming of the current K-12 system down to pre-k.

One of the purposes of this blog is to work to bridge the gulf that currently exists between the early childhood world and K-12 reformers, to make folks in both spaces aware of cool things that are being done and important arguments that are being made in the other.

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