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March 27, 2014 9:43 PM Doing Right by Dual Language Learners in New York City’s Pre-K Expansion

By Conor Williams

After nearly three months as head of New York City’s “ship of state,” Mayor Bill de Blasio is still finding his sea legs. From his approach to snow removal to his (ongoing) attempts to tamp down the controversy over his administration’s treatment of charter schools, de Blasio has had little time to craft and drive political narratives of his own choosing. This has even been true for his top political priority: establishing universal pre-K. For a variety of reasons, the push got bogged down in arguments over funding streams, the pace of implementation, and governing institutions. Perhaps worst of all, the pre-K debate in New York has been dominated by questions related to access.

But increased access is only part of any worthwhile early education agenda. Quality is at least as important—and it’s almost always a more difficult lift for policymakers. To its credit, the de Blasio administration has released several reports that reference its efforts to ensure that any expansion of pre-K access is also of high quality. And yesterday, the mayor announced that the city would spend $6.7 million as part of an early education teacher training program with the City University of New York.

The de Blasio administration deserves credit for including an extra emphasis on dual language learners as part of its progress reports.

And throughout the campaign, de Blasio’s administration has made note of one other especially critical quality improvement. De Blasio has consistently mentioned New York City’s dual language learners as a student group that will get particular supports in any expansion of pre-K. In January, the administration wrote:

As New York City continues to attract and welcome immigrants from all over the world, creating the best pre-K possible for this group of children will become even more important. Reaching these children earlier to develop vocabulary and language skills will increase their ability to thrive and succeed in the K-12 system and deepen their overall comprehension.

In a February progress report, they promised “[m]ore targeted and intensive support for teachers, assistants and administrators, with a particular focus on meeting the needs of students learning English.”

And in yesterday’s press conference announcing the teacher training program, Mayor de Blasio said:

One of the issues that we work on every day in our school system is serving our English language learners. This is an area that I care about a lot and I’ve said that we have to continue to improve. The fact is, that this age group…that comes into pre-K, they’re at a perfect moment for language learning.

But while the administration has repeatedly highlighted this objective, it has thus far been silent on the details. Several of the reports promise to expand the city’s instructional coaching program to support dual language learners, but only as part of a broader effort to improve program quality.

Advocates for dual language learners have been comparatively less quiet about what they’d like to see in the city’s pre-K expansion. In early February, the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families released a report with a set of specific recommendations. Among other proposals, the report suggests that the city fund professional development targeted towards teachers and leaders serving dual language learners.

It also calls on the mayor to pay pre-K teachers in community settings the same amount as teachers working in schools and to include all pre-K providers in the city’s data collection systems. At the moment, pre-K teachers working in settings outside the public schools are paid an average of $10,000 less than their colleagues in the schools. This is a substantial issue for all New York students, since barely 30 percent of the new pre-K seats the administration found for next fall are based in schools. But many dual language learners come from Hispanic families who are too often underserved by school-based programs. These students frequently rely upon pre-K run by community based organizations—where teachers are paid far less.

Earlier this month, the New York State Association for Bilingual Education (NYSABE) also released a position statement on early childhood and education. Among other things, it proposes:

[A] vision that underscores the beliefs that (1) the path towards academic achievement begins in the preschool years, and that (2) central to this vision, ELLs/bilingual learners, must be educated bilingually, through their home language and English.

The NYSABE statement further notes that policy commitments to this research-backed position require adequate funding, strong teacher training programs, as well as reflective use of assessments and the data they provide.

To some degree, it’s impossible to distinguish between the pre-K fights they’re having in New York—funding sources and speed of implementation—and questions of quality. After all, if the dollars come from Albany, they arrive with certain regulatory strings and expectations attached (see Clare McCann’s post on possible differences here).

Still, the de Blasio administration deserves credit for including an extra emphasis on dual language learners as part of its progress reports. In today’s political climate, it’s relatively easy to advocate for early education investments. It’s much harder to articulate the importance of building high-quality programs—let alone actually build them.

But as the mayor moves from making the case for pre-K that serves dual language learners to designing a pre-K system that can cash that rhetorical check, the advocates’ briefs show that there’s still so much to be done. And while this work is unglamorous, it’s almost certainly more consequential.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Conor Williams is a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Find him on Twitter: @ConorPWilliams

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