Can Bill de Blasio Really Deliver on His Promise of Universal Pre-K?

He’ll need to look to New Jersey to do it.

classroom of 4-year-olds.
Universal pre-K is having a moment.

Photo by Dejan Ristovski/iStock/Thinkstock

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has decided to make universal prekindergarten the centerpiece of his first term, and he’s not alone. A year ago, President Obama made pre-K expansion a major component of his State of the Union address, and mayors and governors across the country—from rising Democratic stars like San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro to Republican governors in Michigan and Alabama—have also championed pre-K expansion.

Universal pre-K is having a moment, and all this attention has spawned a predictable backlash, as critics question whether the promise of pre-K really lives up to the hype. Even many New York liberals are wondering whether universal pre-K is really worth the focus de Blasio is placing on it. As is usually the case in education policy, the answer is a complicated one: Yes—but …

While no self-respecting New Yorker would admit to taking cues from New Jersey, the reality is that de Blasio and his critics need only look across the river to see evidence of the tremendous potential of universal pre-K—and the challenges involved in realizing that potential.

In 1998, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered the state of New Jersey to provide high-quality, half-day prekindergarten programs to all 3- and 4-year-olds in 31 of the state’s highest poverty districts—also known as “Abbott districts,” named after the long-running school finance equity lawsuit, Abbott v. Burke.* Today, the Abbott preschool program is a national model for high-quality pre-K and has had a demonstrable impact on improving learning outcomes for participating children through at least third grade. And the Abbott story offers several crucial lessons for universal pre-K in New York:

Quality pre-K works. For more than eight years, the National Institute for Early Education Research, an independent research group associated with Rutgers University, has conducted an evaluation of the impacts of Abbott pre-K programs, and it has found that Abbott pre-K had large, significant impacts on children’s language, literacy, and math skills at kindergarten entry. Even more important, recent evaluations tracking Abbott alumni who are now in fourth and fifth grade show that those gains persist through the end of elementary school—although the magnitude does diminish slightly over time. Children who attended Abbott pre-K were also less likely to be held back in elementary school or diagnosed with learning disabilities.

Obviously a single study of a single program in a single state isn’t enough to show that pre-K “works.” But combined with other evidence—such as the HighScope Perry Preschool and Chicago Longitudinal studies showing the long-term effects of pre-K well into adulthood, and more recent research showing positive effects for state pre-K in Oklahoma, Michigan, New Mexico, Arkansas, and Texas—Abbott pre-K provides a very compelling case that high-quality pre-K can deliver meaningful, sustained results improving children’s school achievement.

Getting quality right is hard. Abbott pre-K has been able to achieve these results because of its high-quality standards. All Abbott pre-K teachers have bachelor’s degrees, specialized training in early childhood education, and support from a master teacher who provides hands-on coaching to teachers in their classrooms. Even more important, these inputs translate into quality learning experiences for Abbott children. When NIEER researchers observed the quality of environment and educational practice in Abbott classrooms, they found that roughly two-thirds of classrooms demonstrated practices in the “good” or better level of quality—well above national averages. But getting to these levels of quality wasn’t easy.  

In 1998, when the New Jersey Supreme Court mandated universal pre-K for the Abbott districts, reaching the goal seemed like an impossible task: Just as in New York City, most Abbott school districts had little or no space for new pre-K programs. Only two state universities had bachelor’s degree programs for early childhood teachers, and quality in community-based preschools fell far short of the court-required standards. But New Jersey officials worked diligently to meet the court’s requirements. They partnered with state universities to establish preparation programs for pre-K teachers, provided scholarships for them to earn degrees, established clear expectations for students’ learning in pre-K, created detailed guidelines to support districts in implementing quality programs, and offered extensive professional development to help pre-K teachers meet the standards.

All of this required real financial investment. In New Jersey’s case, court mandates compelled the state to find funds for pre-K. In most states, however, securing funds for pre-K requires building political support to raise taxes or reduce spending in other areas, and that can be a major obstacle—as we’re currently seeing in the conflict between de Blasio and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo over de Blasio’s push to raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for pre-K.

But the challenges of getting funding for pre-K pale in comparison to the difficulty of implementing quality pre-K programs. New Jersey’s experience offers particularly important lessons for New York here: First, New Jersey required all Abbott pre-K programs to adopt an approved, developmentally appropriate curriculum aligned to early-learning standards. Second, New Jersey implemented a system of ongoing data collection and assessment to drive continuous improvement at all levels. Teachers use developmentally appropriate assessments to track children’s learning and to inform instruction. School districts conduct observations of pre-K classrooms, using a standardized rubric, to monitor the quality of teaching and support professional development. Districts also conduct annual self-assessments of their pre-K programs, which are validated by the state every three years to identify areas of strength and weakness and ensure that programs are meeting quality standards. Finally, the state has invested in NIEER’s independent evaluation of Abbott pre-K as a way to hold itself accountable for the quality and outcomes of pre-K programs. De Blasio’s base may be reluctant to embrace more testing, but this complex system of data collection and assessment to inform ongoing improvement has been critical to raising the bar for Abbott pre-K quality over time—and should also be a cornerstone of any universal pre-K program in New York City.

Make the most of diverse providers, even charter schools. New Jersey’s districts simply didn’t have the capacity or space to serve all eligible preschoolers on the time table mandated by the New Jersey Supreme Court. As a result, a significant percentage of Abbott pre-K classrooms were created in partnership with local, community-based childcare providers and private preschools—not just in public schools. Getting these providers up to the necessary level of quality was a real challenge—but one that has paid off over time in terms of ensuring culturally responsive pre-K programs, meeting the needs of working parents, and enabling pre-K programs to tap into and combine a variety of state and federal funding streams to offer full workday and full-year programs.

New York City’s pre-K program already utilizes a combination of community- and school-based providers but offers full-day programs only in some settings. Mayor de Blasio should continue to support a diverse delivery system for pre-K in New York, while ensuring high, common standards for pre-K quality and leveling the playing field in access to full-day pre-K funds between community- and school-based providers. In addition, the mayor should ensure that public charter schools—which have historically been barred from serving preschoolers in New York City—be included in any pre-K expansion program. To date, the mayor has hardly established himself as a friend to charter schools but building New York’s capacity for universal pre-K will require an all-hands-on-deck approach—no provider should be excluded. New York’s charter sector has a strong track record of academic performance, and many high-quality charter schools are itching to start younger to close the achievement gap. By allowing them to take part in pre-K, de Blasio could start to mend fences with charter supporters and demonstrate that he’s serious about making pre-K a real lever of opportunity in New York City.

Pre-K alone isn’t enough. Impressive as the results of Abbott pre-K are, they also show that quality pre-K alone isn’t enough to close achievement gaps or raise student achievement outcomes. While all 31 Abbott districts offer full-day pre-K, student achievement varies widely across those districts. While some Abbott districts, such as Union City, produce outcomes for their high-poverty student populations that meet or even exceed state averages, others, like Camden and Trenton, have proficiency rates far below the statewide average. This illustrates what common sense tells us: Simply having quality pre-K isn’t enough to close achievement gaps. Schools and districts must use pre-K as the foundation for high-quality learning experiences that build children’s knowledge and skills towards the goal of college and career readiness. Even the best pre-K can’t counteract the impact of ineffective elementary, middle, or high schools. And this is the big gap in de Blasio’s agenda: We know that he supports pre-K, afterschool, and wrap-around comprehensive services for low-income kids—all good things, to be sure. But we haven’t heard much about how he’ll ensure that New York City’s schools do a better job at the one thing only they can do—instructing and educating kids in the core academic curriculum. Without effective strategies to do that, pre-K will have limited impact on either equalizing the playing field for low-income New Yorkers or persuading middle-class parents to stay in the city’s schools.

New Jersey’s Abbott experience offers clear lessons for New York City—but only to a point. New York City has more than three times as many preschoolers as all 31 Abbott districts combined. A universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds in New York City would be the nation’s fifth largest, trailing only the federal Head Start program and state-level programs in Texas, California, and Florida. (A universal pre-K program for 3- and 4-year-olds would be larger than any except Head Start.) This magnitude makes the task of implementing quality preschool at scale all the more difficult—but it’s also all the more reason that de Blasio should pay careful attention to the lessons of other places that have done this well—even if they are on the other side of the river.

*Correction, Jan. 28, 2014: This article originally stated that the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered the state to provide full-day prekindergarten in some districts. (Return.)