What do families, teachers, administrators, and Boston Mayors Tom Menino and Marty Walsh all have in common?
High-quality early education.
This story — of how a big city educates some of its smallest residents — is told in a newly published book, “Children at the Center: Transforming Early Childhood Education in the Boston Public Schools.”
“More than a decade ago,” the book explains, “Boston made a daring bet – that it could build and sustain a high-quality, whole-child focused, intellectually engaging early education program that would significantly lower the city’s persistent achievement gaps by locating that program within its public school system.”
The good news?
“That bet is clearly paying off.”
“Children at the Center” has three expert authors: Betty Bardige, a psychologist and an early childhood author and advocate; Megina Baker, a researcher at Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a Boston University early childhood education faculty member; and Ben Mardell, a principal investigator at Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero.
The book blends local history, innovative educational theory, and vivid classroom examples to chronicle the emergence of the city’s high-quality pre-K program.
In 2005, it was Mayor Menino who announced the “introduction of full-day slots for four-year-olds in the city’s school system,” the book says. In 2014, Walsh became mayor and sent a letter to the city’s preschoolers asking them to help make Boston a “fairer more interesting place for children.” The result was Our Boston, an exhibit of models — including parks, indoor playgrounds, and a money door for whoever needs money – that were on view at City Hall.
“Over the past twelve years, the BPS Department of Early Childhood (DEC) has opened nearly one hundred new preschool classrooms,” the book notes, adding, “each manifests the core principles that animate the DEC’s work. Each bears the imprint of the collaborative work of administrators, coaches, teachers, families, data collectors, outside funders and evaluators, curriculum writers, consultants and a host of other players.”
The cliché is that raising children takes a village. In Boston it’s more of a multinational approach. The city has used federal Preschool Expansion Grant funds and drawn on Italy’s child-centered Reggio Emilia preschools, where, the book notes, “teachers intentionally arrange learning materials to engage children with each other and their teachers as they investigate the materials and create art that represents their ideas.”
One of the book’s best parts is seeing Boston’s classrooms in action. There’s the story of two boys building a cave for a dragon and how their teacher turns their project into an opportunity to consult books, learn new vocabulary, discuss ideas, work as a team, ask for help from other classmates — and, of course, build a dragon who can live in the cave. (Click here to see videos about BPS’ pre-K programs and practices.)
Even data and research make an appearance in the book’s appendix where Christina Weiland and Jason Sachs humbly write, “The use of research and data to drive change in the BPS Department of Early Childhood got off to what many would consider an inauspicious start.” Sachs is DEC’s executive director. Weiland is a University of Michigan education professor who is studying Boston’s pre-K program.
Fortunately, Boston’s use of data improved and yielded, as Sachs and Weiland write, key lessons, including acknowledging the inherent tensions between the speed at which policy decisions are made and the slower work of careful research studies.
While the book comes to a physical end, its narrative continues because the authors conclude with questions about the future.
How can Boston better address inequities? How can current progress be used to fuel future innovations? And how can families and teachers be better supported?
So check out the book, it’s a great story with lots of lessons for parents, educators, and advocates. And stay tuned because Boston’s preschool story promises to generate many more new and exciting chapters.