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Strengthening School Readiness in New York City's Pre-K for All

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This post is by Pamela Morris, Vice Dean for Research and Faculty Affairs at NYU Steinhardt (@nyusteinhardt) and principal investigator of a research-practice partnership with the New York City Department of Education's Division of Early Childhood Education (@NYCSchools).

In 2013, President Obama highlighted pre-K as "among the smartest investments that we can make" and called for making "high-quality preschool available to every single child in America." Likewise, states and cities nationwide have made major investments in publicly-funded pre-K expansion over the last several years. Evidence that pre-K is cost-effective and produces impressive long-term impacts decades following participation has been cited to justify this substantial investment.

In order to fulfill the promise of pre-K, we have to identify ways to ensure high quality at scale. Public and private investments have led to greater rigor in research on pre-K, on the one hand, and a push for districts to implement evidence-based programs, on the other. Despite these parallel and seemingly reinforcing trends, the gap between research and practice remains large. In short, the problem is that research findings often offer only limited guidance to navigate the system-level challenges faced by district personnel in actual, highly-varied educational contexts, with constraints and opportunities not well represented in highly-controlled studies (see here, here, and here). To address this gap, leaders in education research have called for innovation in how social science is deployed to solve educational problems--and research-practice partnerships have emerged as a uniquely effective solution for this issue.

In early 2014, one such research-practice partnership was launched between researchers at the Steinhardt School at New York University (NYU) and New York City's early education leaders in the Division of Early Childhood Education at the Department of Education. The partnership (led initially by myself and NYU's Cybele Raver and funded by the Institute of Education Sciences and the Spencer Foundation) capitalized on a unique event in history: as NYC leaders in economic development, educational improvement, and early childhood education forged a remarkable vanguard in 2014 to offer Pre-K for All. Pre-K for All marked a commitment of NYC's Department of Education under directive from Mayor de Blasio to provide free, full-day, high-quality pre-K to every NYC four-year-old child, expanding the system exponentially and quickly from one that originally served 19,000 students to one that now serves 70,000 children. While the speed and scale of this expansion is impressive by itself, what has been equally noteworthy is the city's accompanying effort to building a strong quality infrastructure, which has been the focus of our partnership.

The partnership was initially designed to address relatively straightforward descriptive questions and present information in easy-to-read visual displays to help city leaders "take the pulse" of children and schools as they rolled out the historic program. It has since evolved to include the co-development of an increasingly robust research infrastructure for ongoing quality monitoring. And most recently, we (with myself and the Department of Education's Josh Wallack as joint principal investigators) were awarded a five-year, $5 million award from the Institute of Education Sciences to launch the next step in the partnership and build in a rigorous analysis of a core component of the program: its professional development system for supporting classroom quality.    

The aim of this phase of the research-practice partnership is to evaluate an innovative model of professional development for pre-K teachers. This jointly-conceived project evaluates four professional learning tracks that differ in targeted teacher practice (e.g., math instruction vs. behavior regulation strategies vs. creative arts integration), and our goal is to examine the impacts of these tracks on children's school readiness. We do so by leveraging naturally occurring lotteries that assign children to "treatment" and others to "control" through NYC's pre-K application process, and the collection of a wealth of data on classrooms and outcomes for children to assess our effects. The result will be a rigorous analysis that answers a central question: How do the different professional development tracks support children's learning and development?

The common goal of our partnership is sustained, joint work that facilitates rigorous research and policy/practice in ways that are useful to NYC (first) and to wider policy and education science communities (second). By helping NYC leaders answer questions of high practical relevance as the programs are being implemented at scale, we aim to provide the kind of information that NYC policymakers overseeing the initiative need to strengthen the program and thus meet its long-term goals of supporting the learning and development of all NYC children through universal pre-K.

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The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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