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Building a Pre-K System

I've spent this week on the blog arguing that we should regard publicly funded pre-k as a structural arrangement, rather than a specific instructional intervention. This has implications for how we think about pre-k research, but it also has broader implications for how policy debates address pre-k.

Current policy debates frequently address pre-k as a specific intervention or program. We ask whether or not pre-k "works." We talk about "state pre-k programs" and "the federal Head Start program." Conversations about pre-k as an intervention or program can have a kind of "just add water" feel: If we can just convince the public to spend enough money on pre-k, if we mandate small class sizes and certified, bachelor's degreed teachers (and maybe also curriculum), then we'll get high-quality pre-k that produces good results for kids and those famous $7-to-$1 returns on public investment. And if we were talking about a specific, replicable intervention, that would be fine.

But if we're really talking about universal pre-k, we're talking about something bigger than a program or specific intervention. We're talking about a whole new system of public education for 4- (and perhaps 3-)year-olds. And that means the policy debate needs to expand beyond "does this program work?" and "what should this program look like?" to ask how we can structure high-quality educational systems that produces the best outcomes for young children. That means asking questions like: How can educational systems incorporate diverse providers and ensure quality across them? How should we hold providers accountable for their outcomes? How do we ensure that the system provides provide meaningful quality options for parents and children? How do we develop the pipeline of human capital for the system and the right incentives to deploy talent strategically? How can a pre-k system foster innovation, continuous improvement, and improved productivity? How can we create the right set of incentives for all the adults in the system? Among other things.

It's one thing--admittedly a very big thing--to persuade policymakers and the public to invest in pre-k programs. But if we want to ensure that these investments produce the desired outcomes for children and are sustainable over time, we also need to build a robust pre-k system. Pre-k advocates know this, and in fact the states with the most robust and high-quality pre-k programs have dealt with many of these system and structural issues. But that's not reflected in the national policy conversation.

The exciting thing here for K-12 analysts and reformers should be that the need to build new systems to deliver public education for preschoolers creates an opportunity to demonstrate how reform-oriented ideas can enable these new pre-k systems to avoid some of the shortcomings of the current K-12 system. The danger, of course, is that these new systems will simply extend K-12 shortcomings downward. That's why K-12 reformers need to pay more attention to debates about pre-k, and also why pre-k advocates need to pay more attention to the lessons of K-12 reform debates. The first step, though, is to stop thinking and talking about pre-k as an intervention or program, and start thinking about it as a set of structural and systemic arrangements to improve the education of preschoolers.

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