Early Childhood

N.Y.C. Unveils ‘Quality Snapshots,’ New Evaluation of City Preschool Program

By Christina A. Samuels — January 18, 2017 3 min read
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New York City has quickly expanded its prekindergarten program from 20,000 seats in 2013-14 to roughly 70,000 today—enough full-day spaces for all 4-year-olds in the city whose parents wish to enroll them.

But the fast growth means a potentially bewildering number of options for parents.

From the inception of the prekindergarten expansion, New York has used community coordinators to provide direct assistance to parents who need help figuring out their early-education options. For the 2017-18 school year, the city has also added another tool: “quality snapshots” of each of the 1,800 prekindergarten programs currently offered.

These quality snapshots are an idea that other early-education programs could emulate, as advocates search for ways to provide parents more information on high-quality preschool options. Most states have adopted a quality rating and improvement system, which generally rates early-education programs on a 5-star scale. But states are still trying to figure out how to keep those ratings reliable, cost-effective, and easy for parents to access.

In New York, the three-page snapshots include the basics—address and phone number, hours of operations, any special programs, meals offered—as well as the results of parent surveys on school quality, and scores on assessments of early-childhood quality.

Josh Wallack, New York City Schools’ deputy chancellor for strategy and policy, said the snapshots were a year in the making. “In designing this, we talked to a lot of programs and schools, and we made sure we were translating what can be pretty subtle complicated information.” The goal was to be “simple, but not simplistic.”

The snapshots will not replace the community coordinators, Wallack said; now that the city has finished scaling-up the program, those outreach workers will still be needed to reach out to specific communities to make sure they know about the prekindergarten offerings available to them. And the snapshots are also not intended to be the only document a family considers when making an enrollment choice. “This should be the beginning of their inquiry into a program, not the end of it,” Wallack said.

New York Prekindergarten Raises Quality Scores

The city also released new information on the overall quality of its prekindergarten programs. The city uses two observation-measurement tools to evaluate prekindergarten quality: the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale-Revised, also known as ECERS-R, and the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, or CLASS. Both tools measure elements that are believed to be important for student learning.

For the ECERS-R, 84 percent of prekindergarten programs evaluated between 2013-14 and 2015-16 scored at or above 3.4 on a 7-point scale. That score is correlated with improved student outcomes. That is up from 77 percent of the prekindergarten programs that were evaluated between 2012-13 and 2014-15.

The city evaluated more than 1,000 preschool programs using the CLASS tool, which also uses a 7-point scale. The city’s prekindergarten programs scored an average of 6.2 points on emotional support, 6.1 on classroom organization and 3.3 points on instructional support during the 2015-16 school year. Those scores are higher than the average for a sample of Head Start programs.

Overall, the scores suggest that program quality can be maintained even in a fast-growing program, said C. Cybele Raver, a professor of psychology at New York University and an expert in child development.

“It’s a really good piece of news for researchers like myself and also for policymakers, that you don’t have to give up quality when you increase access. You can increase family access in an equitable way,” Raver said.

W. Steven Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, agreed that the results suggest that “expansion is not inconsistent with good quality,” but that other jurisdictions might have good reasons to want to move more slowly.

What New York offers is a laboratory for others that want to know how to maintain prekindergarten quality while making the program widespread, he said. “The question could be, what do you have to put in place to make this happen?”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.