Preschool is big right now.
President Obama, a bipartisan collection of governors and mayors across the country are touting it as an important investment in the economy. Some are even calling it a long-term answer to the vexing problem of income inequality.
But the research on the impacts of early education is mixed. And as policymakers push for universal preschool — "preschool for all," in the president's parlance — they're trying to figure out what actually works in the classroom.
One of the places they're looking: Boston, where a Harvard University study of the city's K1 program — preschool for 4-year-olds -- suggests a big, urban effort can make a difference.
Not everyone, though, is sold.
'We Can Do Better'
It's a Wednesday morning at the Eliot K-8 Innovation School in Boston's North End and teacher Jodi Doyle is working with a small group of students interested in domes.
The lesson doesn't go exactly as planned.
She wants the students to build their domes with wire. But she doesn't want to just come out and say it. The kids used wire several months ago for a related project. And she's hoping they'll remember.
"Is there anything else in this classroom we could use that might hold the shape of a dome?" she asks.
"Aaah, aaah, books!" a kid blurts out.
Observing the lesson is Marina Boni, a teaching coach banging out notes on her laptop. She's impressed with the project — it's quite advanced for 4-year-old kids.
And that afternoon, in a coaching session off the nurse's room, Boni commends Doyle for trying to tie the new wire project to the old; revisiting previous experiences helps children build conceptual understanding.
But she says photographs of the older, forgotten project might've made the connection a bit more concrete.
"You didn't have some..." Boni begins.
"Some documentation," Doyle says.
"Some of the documentation to remind them of the process," Boni continues.
"So I almost had to give it to them," Doyle says.
"So you had to give it to them," Boni says.
Boston school officials say this system of intensive coaching is a key to their success.
It's part of a larger focus on quality. Boston uses a rigorous curriculum and requires preschool teachers to get masters degrees — just like teachers in the upper grades.
Academics have known for some time that quality can make a difference. But much of the research has focused on small-scale programs.
The Harvard study — which found larger gains in math and vocabulary than in any other study of a large-scale preschool program in the nation — suggests something bigger is possible.
Harvard economist and education professor Richard Murnane, who was not involved in the study, says the lesson is "we can do better in preparing poor children for school and it can be done at considerable scale."
There are skeptics, though.
The knock on preschool is that no one has conclusively shown it can have long-term impacts. Studies on the federally funded Head Start program found gains fading by the third grade. And critics say a program without proven staying power is not worthy of a big public investment.
Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, says the research on Boston's program does little to puncture the critique. The Harvard study, after all, only measured gains over the course of a single preschool year.
"We just don't know about Boston, whether the positive effects that are talked about at the end of the pre-K year are going to be there at the end of first grade, second grade or third grade," he says. "And without knowing that, it's hard to make a decision about whether this is a great program that ought to be replicated in other places."
'We Want To Replicate That'
But the school system's own testing data suggests the gains are holding up pretty well in elementary school — even if they decay a bit over time.
And Jason Sachs, the energetic director of early education for the Boston Public Schools, says he's already eyeing an overhaul of the kindergarten and first-through-third-grade curricula in a bid to preserve — and build on — the preschool progress.
"I can certainly say, 'OK, we've done preschool pretty well and we could now share that with the country and that would be a great gain,' " he says. "But the last two years, as I started doing walk-throughs in the district and looking at kindergarten, first and second, third grade, realized that the real reform is not preschool — the real frontier is kindergarten, first, second and third grade."
But policymakers eyeing Boston aren't waiting for elementary school reform — or even a study on the long-term impacts of the 2,300-student preschool program. They want a close look, now, at the city's pre-kindergarten efforts.
In the last couple of months, Sachs has presented in Michigan, New Mexico, Chile and the Netherlands. And the city has had its share of visitors.
Early this month, a high-level delegation from Seattle rolled across town in a large, white bus — visiting Doyle's class at the Eliot, among other places.
There was an official with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on board. The mayor was in the back. And up front: Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess, who has led a years-long push for expanded preschool in his city.
"Well Boston right now is regarded as the gold standard in high-quality preschool in our nation," he said. "They've done an amazing job here ... We want to replicate that in Seattle.
Still, if there was enthusiasm on the bus, there was also a bit of pushback.
Seattle school board member Stephan Blanford has a background in early education and likes the idea of comprehensive preschool. But he says there are some serious questions about financing a high-quality program. And even logistical challenges can get in the way — like finding adequate classroom space.
"The school district is actually growing, our enrollments are growing, and the issue around capacity is going to be huge," he says.
Seattle officials hope to get around the classroom crunch with a hybrid program — some preschool classrooms in the public schools and some in community settings.
But space and money remain significant challenges — and not just in Seattle. They're problems in many American cities — Boston among them.
This town may be a beacon for the universal preschool movement. But so far, Boston has only managed to provide seats for about half the interested families.