Those Who Say It Can’t Be Done Are Usually Interrupted By Others Doing It

I have a very deep respect for Kevin Huffman, which is why I found his recent Washington Post piece on pre-k a bit perplexing. I completely understand why Huffman, who as Commissioner of Education oversaw Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program, would bridle a bit when pre-k advocates criticize the program’s quality (as many have done in the wake of a Vanderbilt University study that found no lasting academic benefits from the program). He’s absolutely correct that Tennessee’s pre-k program previous scored high ratings on the National Institute for Early Education Research scorecard, and he’s probably right that it’s not that different in quality from pre-k programs in many other states. But it’s also true that the same Vanderbilt researchers found that 85 percent of Tennessee VPK classrooms fell below what experts consider a “good” level of quality.

Which gets to the central question that both Huffman and I are interested in here: If putting in place the structural inputs that pre-k supporters have advocated for the past decade doesn’t guarantee quality, how can we ensure quality in pre-k at scale? 

Huffman seems skeptical that we can. He asks: “What leads us to believe that we can take small, high-quality pre-K programs and blow them out into a statewide or nationwide intervention?” The answer is that we know we can because it’s been done: New Jersey’ Abbott Pre-k Program and Boston’s Preschool Program have produced high-quality pre-k and sustained results for children at scale. Huffman can be excused for believing that “The studies showing that pre-K “works” are based on small, high-quality pre-K programs.” Despite recent evidence that pre-k is having lasting impact at scale in New Jersey, Boston, and Oklahoma, the notion that only small, boutique pre-k programs produce lasting outcomes remains established in conventional wisdom.

Huffman also seems to share another common misperception: That universal pre-k means putting little kids in schools. He writes:

“We should consider a wider range of interventions. I would love to see apolitical research comparing school-based pre-K, private day care, church preschool and Head Start. In the same way that public charter schools have become an important addition to traditional public schools, are there ways to let dollars flow to early childhood programs based on effectiveness?”

The reality, though is that many publicly funded preschool programs, including those in New Jersey, Georgia, New York City, and Seattle–indeed, the majority of state pre-k programs–already utilize a mixed delivery system that incorporates public schools, private schools, community-based childcare, Head Start, and, in some places, even religiously affiliated programs. Given that, it’s not clear to me why Huffman sees such value in conducting research on the quality of programs offered by the different providers. My hunch, informed by my own interactions with lots of school- and community-based early childhood programs in many states, is that the results would be much like those from the research comparing charter schools and districts, or alternative and traditional teacher preparation: We’d find both good and bad providers within each type of organizational auspice, and variation in results within auspices much more significant than differences between auspices.

The more important question, then, is not which type of providers are better, but how to support and ensure quality across a diverse mix of providers, and, more specifically, how to structure policies and systems encourage, support, and hold accountable pre-k teachers and diverse providers to consistently deliver high-quality instruction. That’s an incredibly complex challenge, but it’s ultimately not that different from the one we face in public education more generally–at least if we believe it’s possible to someday have a system of effective schools that educate all students. Advocates and policymakers designing pre-k policies can learn a lot from experiences that Huffman and other K-12 reformers have had in trying to bring us closer to that reality–and I suspect that K-12 reformers could learn a thing or two from the research base and experience in early education as well.

That’s why I ultimately found Huffman’s piece so frustrating: If we want to make quality pre-k work at scale for more children, we need smart people like him on the inside helping to figure out the answers to these complicated questions, rather than on the outside saying it can’t be done. I don’t think Huffman would ever say that our current failure to provide quality schools at scale for all K-12 students means it can’t be done. Rather it’s a challenge that our nation’s best and brightest must rise to answer. What if we thought the same way about preschool?