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Despite the gridlock that has become synonymous with the nation’s capital, in 2008 Washington, D.C., enacted something groundbreaking. It rolled out universal free access to preschool and pre-k across the city.
Just over a decade later, the district offers a roadmap and improvement model for other cities looking to provide universal early childhood access to more families.
Here are three key lessons:
Lesson 1: Access to early childhood education sets students on a strong learning path. The research is unequivocal: The efficacy and long-term benefits of a high-quality preschool and pre-k education have direct impacts on a child’s future growth and learning.
Related: More charter schools mean fewer early education options, research finds
These gains are often more pronounced for lower-income children. The decision to democratize access to quality early childhood programming district-wide has underscored the important roles that preschool and pre-k teachers play in shaping the short- and long-term minds of its youngest residents. With the proliferation of universal preschool and pre-k access, the district made a value statement not only about access to education for all students, but also about how important it is to value all teachers through training and salaries comparable to their K-12 colleagues.
Lesson 2: Embrace a residency model to train teachers. We can’t stop at access. All children, families and communities deserve a high-quality academic experience and social-emotional learning-informed model, and so do their teachers. But with a mounting national teaching shortage, affordability and gradual on-ramps into the profession are often at odds with one another and create barriers for individuals seeking to enter the teaching profession.
One effective approach — which balances cost considerations with the need for on-ramps — that is making incredible strides in the District of Columbia is the teacher residency model. Many residency models enable aspiring teachers to earn their degrees while gaining paid experience in classroom settings. Early childhood teachers require the same support and rigor in programmatic focus, differentiation and access that their primary and secondary colleagues receive.
Related: Time to change how we think about early education, international study finds
They need to learn how to analyze student data, and how to effectively adjust their instruction to ensure that all of their young learners are reaching key developmental milestones. For example, when rhyming with their 3-year-old learners, teachers need to detect misconceptions and patterns in mistakes at the individual student level and to remediate both in the moment and over time. Teachers benefit from in-class time to develop this level of analysis and a variety of effective responses. They need to develop their craft with ample professional development and coaching to hone it over the long-term, which is very different from a “jump-in-with-both-feet” approach.
Lesson 3: An ecosystem of partners can value recruiting and retaining a diverse pipeline of early childhood teachers. A handful of residency programs work within all eight of the district’s wards — particularly in high-need communities. Many programs include early childhood resident-teachers who self-identify as persons of color and are representative of the communities served. Because these programs allow residents to work within a range of both traditional public and charter schools, they are effectively breaking down barriers that too often contribute to the teaching shortage, enabling aspiring teachers to earn paychecks in their chosen field while also obtaining teaching degrees and credentials.
Education is a deeply personal, deeply challenging and yet deeply fulfilling field. Sometimes it can be hard to find systemic solutions that work in classrooms. In the nation’s capital, universal access to preschool and pre-k — and the stable pipeline of quality early childhood teachers that universal access is attracting through an array of partnerships and programs — is one of those bright spots.
The city has made tremendous strides in its universal early childhood rollout, but additional work remains. As more cities across the country learn from the district’s successes and missteps, thousands more families can benefit from high-quality universal preschool and pre-k. But we must continue to remember the educators and their need for high-quality teacher training — because supporting the growth of our youngest minds means supporting the growth of their teachers. It’s that simple.
This story about the youngest learners was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Brooke James is the founding dean of Relay Washington, D.C.
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