Education

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio's "Universal Pre-K" Program Is Delusional

Gotham's broken government school system isn't worth saving, let alone expanding.

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City of New York

One morning in August 1987, three months after my fourth birthday, my mom drove me a couple miles from our home in a cushy Los Angeles suburb and dropped me off for my first day of formal schooling at the local Montessori pre-kindergarten program.

Montessori's educational philosophy famously focuses on cultivating student autonomy and self-expression. My experience was typical. I made my first friends. I learned the proper proportions of a capitalized "B."  I became a master craftsman of macaroni necklaces.

This time was probably nothing more than fancy daycare. Exceptionally intensive, well-run pre-k programs might possibly impart lasting cognitive benefits. But the evidence is sketchy at best.

These facts are no foe to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Establishing a government-run "universal" pre-k program was a centerpiece of his campaign for the job. And now, he's about to make good on that promise. The mayor just secured $300 million for the project in the New York state budget. The new pre-k program will click into place over the next two years. It will eventually enroll about 73,250 children at a cost of $10,200 per head. A small slice of the schools are expected to be run in concert with community charities and private providers, but the vast majority will be directly managed by the city's Department of Education.

And here's where the romantic visions driving de Blasio's grand project collide with the intractable reality of what public pre-k in New York City will actually look like in practice. These schools will bear little resemblance to my Montessori experience. They will not be sanctuaries for supple young minds. They will not be exceptionally intensive and well-run. They will be mostly terrible.

We know this because the NYC Department of Education has been running a couple thousand K-12 institutions for decades. It spends about $19,000 per student per year. And its schools are…mostly terrible.

For a full quarter of NYC public schools, at least 90 percent of the student body is below grade level in math and reading. And with the tiny exceptions of some high performing charters and elite magnet schools such as Stuyvesant, the rest perform substantially below overall state averages.

Just 28 percent of the city's public fourth graders score "proficient" or better on the federally-run National Assessment of Educational Progress.  Poor, black and Latino students tend to do even worse.

So this is the warped logic undergirding this new pre-k program: Government schools have sucked up huge public resources while failing over and over again to meet their basic obligation to equip students with the knowledge and skills they need to secure a brighter future. Mayor de Blasio looks out at this vast blighted terrain of waste and broken promises and thinks to himself: "Time to expand."

And even if the city's education bureaucrats could somehow break from the past and establish high quality preschools, any cognitive gains imparted on participating kids will evaporate once they've been offloaded into one of those terrible public grade schools. The long-term return on that $300 million investment will approximate zero.

This is exactly the story of Head Start, which, like universal pre-k, occupies a sacred space in the public imagination. The benefits of Head Start were extensively investigated in two separate studies run by the federal government. The aim for each was justifying the program's $100 billion price tag. They accomplished the opposite. Both found no aptitude difference between grade schoolers that had attended Head Start and those that had not.

Mayor de Blasio's delusional pre-k initiative is the natural extension of his deeply broken philosophy about education generally.

Effectively schooling the million-plus students in the NYC system—with their vastly different family backgrounds, learning styles, and personalities—is a challenging problem. Probably the worst possible way to try to tackle it is to have distant technocrats create a single inflexible pedagogical program and apply it uniformly throughout the city.

Here's a superior approach:  Provide teachers and administrators the freedom to adapt educational protocols to the needs of their specific pupils. And empower parents to shop around—competition for students creates the incentives for schools to improve.

There's no better testament to the power of an open, innovation-friendly educational platform than NYC's own Success Academy, almost certainly the best charter franchise in the city.

Run by former city council member and likely future mayoral prospect Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy draws its students mostly from low-income minority communities. Because it has been freed from union rules and staid educational paradigms, it can adapt to best meet students' needs by, among other things, lengthening school days and shortening summers.

The results have been phenomenal. Success Academy students post a 94 percent pass rate in national math aptitude assessments and 64 percent in English—both scores dramatically exceed citywide averages. After Moskowitz recently announced she would be opening up 10 new locations, over 14,400 families applied for fewer than 3,000 seats.

Surely, as a true champion of Gotham's struggling poor, Mayor de Blasio has welcomed Moskowitz's success, right? Maybe he's empowered other education entrepreneurs to similarly experiment? Or at least dispatched his policy team to soak up some of Success Academy's best practices?

Not exactly. The mayor's sole interaction with Moskowitz so far is a petty turf war.

Within the first few months of his term, de Blasio moved to expel several Success programs from the public buildings they were housed in. He told a teachers union conference that Moskowitz needs to "stop being tolerated, enabled, supported." The mayor backed down only after some Silicon Valley heavy-hitters bankrolled a concerted counter-campaign.

Moskowitz is a threat to "traditional" public schools, which de Blasio holds sacred. And its that ideal—of a uniform, government-run education system for all the city's children—that animates this new pre-k program.

But it's precisely that system that has so thoroughly failed generation after generation of young New Yorkers. It's certainly not worth saving, let alone expanding.

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  1. Exceptionally intensive, well-run pre-k programs might possibly impart lasting cognitive benefits.

    How about *paying* the kids to learn? Give ’em a case of candy bars for becoming proficient in math.

    1. Suggesting things that would work is unethical.

    2. I don’t know. The thing is, we usually get paid for doing shit that sucks. If learning sucks, you already have a problem; kids, especially younger ones, have an innate desire to learn about the world, and find it emotionally rewarding. Maybe figure out how to stop destroying their love of knowledge before turning them into soulless extrinsic-reward-seeking drones?

      1. Agree.

        But can this be done without (say) licensing parenthood?

      2. Learning does suck. Reading books is boring compared to playing Hearthstone. I read books because playing Hearthstone does not provide long-term satisfaction like self-discipline and reading do.

        Teaching kids to defer satisfaction via reward is an excellent, excellent idea. I’d be way on board with providing cash payouts for good academic performance provided that there was a third party to design and administrate testing and ensure an absence of grade inflation, which would be the tricky part when parents figure out their precious darlings can bring home $500 a semester just by cheating on their algebra exams or whining about how unfair it is that Bobby Sue with an IQ of 142 got paid for what came naturally while dumbass Billy Brown went home empty handed.

    3. Memory says there was a study of just such a program in the last year or two, which found that paying kids to learn was counter-productive, apparently turning it into a chore. But I don’t remember any details.

  2. the romantic visions driving de Blasio’s grand project bare little resemlbance to the sad reality of what public pre-k in New York City will actually look like in practice.

    No

    fucking

    way.

    —-

    “bare”? really?

    1. Does a Bare shit in the woods? Is the Poop the head of the Catholic Church?

      1. Does it dare poop on the bare head of the Catholic church?

  3. The long-term return on that $300 million investment will approximate zero.

    Disagree. It will improve the financial well-being of various unions and their members and contribute to the re-election of Democratic Party politicians.

    Which is all this particular theft is about.

    1. ^This. Plus, it’s a baby-sitting service for single mothers, who will be so grateful for the husband-replacement support of the State, and vote for a bigger State.

  4. my mom drove me a couple miles from our home in a cushy Los Angeles suburb and dropped me off for my first day of formal schooling at the local Montessori pre-kindergarten program. … This time was probably nothing more than fancy daycare.

    With all due respect, Mr. Montz, it was “nothing more than fancy daycare” because Montessori wasn’t made for children of soccer moms. Not that all children can’t benefit from Montessori methods, but they work best in the environment for which they were designed; urban slum kids. At the turn of the (19th) century, Montessori designed her school to provide the learning environment Italian street kids weren’t getting at home, where the father came stumbling home drunk and any attempt at autonomy was met with a slap in the face and a “Wassmattau”? The Montessori classroom is supposed to be ordered and impeccably clean; a stark contrast to the dingy tenements of 1900’s Rome. Etc. Etc.

    1. And this is the stiletto in our boot that should be employed against the Progressivist (though in education, they’ve mostly dumped Dewey for Freire, anyway) critics of school choice. As has been pointed out, some of the biggest benefits of charters and choice are seen in the environment of urban poverty. Yet, the chorus of screeching harpies; e.g., Ravitch, Delpit, Weingarten, et al. has managed to successfully brand Montessori and other methodologies that go against the orthodoxy of state-controlled, industrial-model pedagogy, as upper middle-class pretension. The history and the research show that just isn’t so. And this message must be shouted from the rooftops of the Reason Foundation and other school choice organizations.

      1. I don’t think there is a single issue that could blow up the progressive’s political power quite like a concerted, national effort to make school choice the norm for every decaying urban area in the US.

        1. DAMN does that get me going.

          Until I learned the term “Party of Stupid,” I wondered why in HELL every Republican politician doesn’t spend 50% of his/her campaign telling ghetto parents that their kids will get to go to that high-falutin’ public school all the rich white kids attend if they’ll just vote R. Bring the teachers and principals along, have them stand there and tell the parents exactly what they’ll do for their kids if they’re allowed to choose their school.

          And what’s sad and funny is, Democrats seem to be waking up to this before Republicans. Lately a few lefties are grumbling and rumbling about saving inner city kids through school choice. And once they get momentum, I bet they’ll be smart enough to play it as “the white Republicans don’t want you to go to their schools, so let’s show ’em.”

          Swearta god, that issue is sitting there BEGGING to be picked up by Republicans, but no.

      2. Oh stop it. We all know that charters just cherry pick to get their results.

        /sarc (because I prolly need it for this one)

        The latest tack is to claim that while Head Start doesn’t help academically, it reduces crime and so STILL pays for itself seven times over. *sigh*

        1. Charters do select. It’s a big reason they’re so attractive to parents – no icky “problem” kids attending with your special snowflake.

          Remind me how charters are libertarian?

          1. Remind me where any libertarian claims charters are libertarian.

            And charters don’t select — parents select. I don’t need to remind you of this, you already know, but not all your audience knows what a condescending patronizing liar you are.

          2. Remind me how charters are libertarian?

            Considering that public schools are about as Socialist as you can get charter public schools are minutely less Socialist.

            Obviously, there is nothing libertarian about wealth transfers or coerced “education” so no public school is libertarian.

      3. Heroic Mulatto: I was not aware of the history. Thanks.

    2. And railroads were invented for reasons which are meaningless today, as were the telegraph, square rigged sailing ships, and computers.

      What’s the point of all that wind you’re huffing?

  5. You question de Blasio’s program only because you mistake his aims.

    free daycare for his constituency

    pork for teacher’s unions

    earlier indoctrination of “sharing” mantra

    1. ^This

      As with many ‘environmental’ proposals, or a raft of other regulatory Big Ideas floated by the progressives, the real purpose of the policies has nothing to do with their stated function, or ostensible goal. They all simply serve to funnel public money in a certain direction, or put the Right People in position to guide where future monies will be directed (i.e. expand bureaucracy)

      By broadening the public education mandate down to pre-schoolers, the teachers unions have added to their roles, added dependents to their services, and deepened their ties with their crony political servants.

      We should dispense with even pretending like Bill DeBlasio gives a wet fart about whether pre-K actually produces ‘better outcomes’. You’ll be lucky if they can keep the child-molesting to a minimum.

      1. *added to ‘rolls’

  6. Why does Mayor de Blasio hate three year olds? And two year olds?
    And…. Isn’t free public education a right for all children age newborn through age 26???

  7. LETS ROLL WITH IT DUDE. wOW.

    http://www.Crypt-Anon.tk

  8. As with many ‘environmental’ proposals, or a raft of other regulatory Big Ideas floated by the progressives, the real purpose of the policies has nothing to do with their stated function, or ostensible goal.

    You’re blowing my mind, Dude.

  9. my friend’s step-sister makes $69 an hour on the internet . She has been out of a job for 8 months but last month her pay check was $15670 just working on the internet for a few hours. try this site……..
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    1. Imagine if your friend’s step-sister had been part of a universal pre-K program.

  10. I’m so glad my state had 300 million dollars lying around in the couch cushions to throw at this worthy program.

  11. Anyone else here sending their kids to Montessori? My 4yo just started this week.

    1. I sent mine 20 years ago. I studied up on it and really liked the basic concepts of it. Then I visited and observed the school where he would be going. I was very pleased with the 1.5 years he spent there. I recommend it highly.

    2. It’s my understanding that any school can call itself “Montessori”. The word is not copyrighted. You need to check if it’s accredited. However, there are at least two organizations that accredit montessori schools, AMI and IMC (you can look them up). I don’t know how much accreditation means. We had our son go to one for a year.

  12. I’ve honestly never understood the educational benefits of Montessori or pre-school, other than to introduce kids to new friends. I never went to pre-school, but consistently read well ahead of my grade level and tested well in all of the primary subjects. The biggest help to me was that my parents worked with me on schoolwork and that my mom read to me a lot when I was little.

    Just seems that pre-school is exactly what Rob suggested…day care. Which is fine for parents that want that, but I don’t see any reason why taxpayers should be forced to pay for it.

    1. “I’ve honestly never understood the educational benefits of Montessori or pre-school, other than to introduce kids to new friends.”

      Do you have any knowledge of the Montessori method/philosophy? Do you know what a day consists of for a 4 or 5 year-old attending a Montessori school? Or is this just your gut feeling?

      1. Nope…no clue of what their day consists. But I also knew other kids who went to Montessori and they were no better or worse off than kids that didn’t when it came to regular schoolwork.

        If the rationale is that it somehow sets the ground for success in life by starting them in school early, I didn’t see any evidence of that. If it’s basically just day care, then it served its purpose.

    2. that my mom read to me a lot when I was little.

      This is really important.

  13. Everyone seems to have great ideas about what schools will and won’t work. And there is evidence of schools that succeed and those that fail miserably. But, the reality is, until the culture of the inner cities changes, no matter how much we spend or don’t spend, no matter how much choice there is, no matter how good or bad the schools are, nothing will change. Until it is not OK to have children out of wedlock at an alarming rate (around 67.8% in the African American community as a whole at 2012 Census counts, 43% for Hispanics and 26% for whites – with the rates being much higher for all groups in the inner city areas)things will not significantly change. Children need a family. A father. They need to have siblings who share those parents. They need to all live together under one roof. Gangs exist because children are growing up in female dominated households and are looking for daddy figures to teach them how to be men (boys) and how to be loved by a man (girls).

    1. Inner city, outer city, being a dad doesn’t pay. And takes a lot of time, as well. What behaviour are we incentivizing? And are the outcomes really surprising?

    2. “But, the reality is, until the culture of the inner cities changes, no matter how much we spend or don’t spend, no matter how much choice there is, no matter how good or bad the schools are, nothing will change.”

      I’ll agree that the biggest change is the amount of parent involvement, but there is another factor we can affect if the teachers’ unions were removed from the equation:
      “The fifth-graders at Broadous Elementary School come from the same world ? the poorest corner of the San Fernando Valley, a Pacoima neighborhood framed by two freeways where some have lost friends to the stray bullets of rival gangs.
      Many are the sons and daughters of Latino immigrants who never finished high school, hard-working parents who keep a respectful distance and trust educators to do what’s best.
      The students study the same lessons. They are often on the same chapter of the same book.
      Yet year after year, one fifth-grade class learns far more than the other down the hall. The difference has almost nothing to do with the size of the class, the students or their parents.”
      http://www.latimes.com/local/l…..tml#page=1

    3. Children need a family. A father. They need to have siblings who share those parents.

      The answer to simplistic one-size-fits-all left wing social ideology isn’t simplistic one-size-fits-all right wing social ideology. Human beings are amazingly complex and psychologically diverse.

      The real problem with inner cities is much simpler: government policies incentivize undesirable behavior and discourage desirable behavior.

      Everyone seems to have great ideas about what schools will and won’t work

      Yes, and since nobody knows who’s right, we should just let people do their own thing; if they have to live with the consequences, they will tend to make better individual choices.

      1. “The real problem with inner cities is much simpler: government policies incentivize undesirable behavior and discourage desirable behavior.”

        And then compound it by giving the kids in those hoods rotten teachers.
        Yes, it is a cultural problem and one that is driven by proggies.

  14. I don’t know why everyone’s complaining. The daycare would be free, so it’s not like anyone would have to pay for it.

    If you have any doubts, just look at how successful free healthcare has been for the elderly and the poor as well as the tremendous cost/benefit ratio for free public education. And who would hate getting something for free?

    Was it Bierce or Mencken who defined government as the institution whereby every man attempts to live off the labor of every other man?

    1. Was it Bierce or Mencken who defined government as the institution whereby every man attempts to live off the labor of every other man?

      You didn’t go back far enough. I believe it was Bastiat.

      1. That was embarrassing.

  15. “Here’s a superior approach: Provide teachers and administrators the freedom to adapt educational protocols to the needs of their specific pupils. And empower parents to shop around?competition for students creates the incentives for schools to improve.”

    Sort of a free market approach. That should go over well with a liberal progressive union lackey.

    1. It’s not even free market, just a half-measure one step removed from the out-and-out nationalization we have under state-run schools.

      It’s pretty telling that they treat people like Milton Friedman–who spent his career trying to strike a middle ground between hard, unyielding libertarians and a nation that had turned increasingly to a command economy–like he’s some sort of devil for daring to suggest that mandatory, state-run schools might have a tiny bit of choice built into them.

      If you were a condemned man standing before a firing squad, these people would bitch and moan for hours if you dared ask for a cigarette.

  16. Mark my words, if NYC insanely follows through with this idiocy it will be one corrupt, expensive and unfair system designed and implemented by inept, paternalist bureaucrats.

    It’s in a state of anarchy in Quebec.

  17. some Silicon Valley heavy-hitters bankrolled a concerted counter-campaign [against deBlasio]

    WHAT?

    1. The Silicon Valley types have a cultural affinity and kinship with liberals despite many libertarian tendencies. But the one place where you can get the SV guys to really turn on the donkeys is with education. They see how bad the failure is, they see the lack of accountability, and they understand how destructive it is.

      1. Ah.

        You’d think they’d be able to discern the underlying principle, apply it to other areas, and —

        But that’s the liberal mind. Friend o’ mine is a screaming blue Democrat except on gun control, because a deer ate her mother’s garden. Now she’s all BLAMM. BLAAM. BLAM BLAMMMM.

        1. You’d think they’d be able to discern the underlying principle, apply it to other areas, and —

          Most people in Silicon Valley are so well off that they don’t care, don’t have to care, and don’t even notice.

  18. Will there ever be a time when Reason will advance from promoting faux privatization, to the advocacy of a completely government-free market in education?

    Let’s take the motto “free markets, free minds” seriously.

    1. Either you didn’t read the article or you have a reading comprehension problem.

  19. It’s government to the rescue. God help us.

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