When Pre-K Comes to School: Policy, Partnerships, and the Early Childhood Education Workforce
reviewed by Lois Yamauchi & Caroline Li Soga - June 15, 2017
Title: When Pre-K Comes to School: Policy, Partnerships, and the Early Childhood Education Workforce
Author(s): Bethany Wilinski
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 080775823X, Pages: 160, Year: 2017
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When Pre-K Comes to School: Policy, Partnerships, and the Early Childhood Education Workforce by Bethany Wilinski is a quick read and a recommended one. It provides an analysis of Wisconsins 4K free, universal prekindergarten (pre-K) program, as it unfolded in the city of Lakeville. In response to research demonstrating the long-term benefits of early childhood education (ECE), there has been a rapid expansion of public pre-K across the U.S. over the past 15 years (Barnett, Carolan, Fitzgerald, & Squires, 2012). Public pre-K is state-funded with a goal of educating 4-year-olds (Barnett, Friedman, Hustedt, & Stevenson-Boyd, 2009). With the exception of federally-funded Head Start, the private sector has historically provided ECE to American families. State-funded pre-K has called for an unprecedented collaboration between ECE and K-12 systems. When Pre-K comes to School depicts how these partnerships create opportunities and constraints for both teachers and schools.
When Pre-K comes to School is timely, as many states are currently working to develop or expand public pre-K programs. Anyone who is developing such a policy should read this book. Written in an engaging voice, the book is accessible to educators, researchers, and policy makers, who all have a stake in the expansion of universal pre-K. One of the strengths of the book is its focus on policy as practice, which Wilinski used to frame her analysis. From this perspective, policies are not simply texts to be implemented (p. 7), but are the impetus for the creation of culture. This approach is helpful because it presents actual ways in which the 4K policy influenced the lives of those involved to produce and reproduce values, beliefs, and actions of stakeholders. Applying an anthropological approach, Wilinski analyzed how teachers understood and enacted the policy. She compared implementation at three focal sites: a public school, a private preschool, and a corporate child care center and showed how the 4K policies created benefits and disadvantages.
Another strength is the books extensive literature review, detailing the history of public investment in ECE. This background provides readers with insight into how policies and programs developed in response to social, political and economic crises and created the current and fragmented ECE system. The historical background also helps readers understand the debate between whether ECE is a form of care, education or both. Wilinski took a closer look at how different states implemented public pre-K, illustrating the dramatic variations between approaches. Highlighting these differences, Wilinski called attention to debates in the field, including who pre-K should serve, teacher qualifications, and appropriate settings.
To conduct her study of the Lakeville context, Wilinski interviewed educators, administrators, and other 4K stakeholders. She also conducted over 100 hours of ethnographic observations of the three focal classrooms and made other observations at meetings and other policy events. Missing from this analysis, however, is the perspective of those within the Lakeville school district beyond building level teachers and administrators. District administrators declined to participate and the absence of their perspectives is unfortunate.
Much of When Pre-K Comes to School focuses on the partnerships that developed between the Lakeville District that administered 4K and the three focal sites. Wilinski pointed out that those who promoted the expansion of state pre-K touted collaborations with existing educational and childcare sites as a way to solve a number of problems. For example, partnerships with existing childcare sites were said to alleviate a lack of space for pre-K in some public schools. These partnerships were also viewed as a means to share the influx of funding with community ECE organizations that often struggled financially.
Wilinski revealed that the partnerships between the 4K program and the three focal sites created tensions, particularly between the ECE and the K-12 organizations. Although there were potential benefits of this partnership, a look beneath the surface reveals that the partnership itself was not quite so collaborative and . . . was tumultuous (pp. 52-53). There was competition for resources and children to fill 4K slots, and some early childhood educators questioned whether elementary schools were appropriate sites for pre-K.
When Pre-K Comes to School describes the costs and benefits of the Lakeville partnerships. Many families, particularly those whose children enrolled for half of the school day, saved money as the program was designed to be free and half-day. Other anticipated benefits, however, did not necessarily come to fruition. The program was designed to increase access to quality ECE for those who previously lacked access to such programming, particularly those from low-income backgrounds. At the time the book was written, this goal was not realized. Wilinski explained that part of the problem was that 4K was not available in areas accessible to many low-income families. Many ECE community sites in low income areas could not meet eligibility criteria that included sites being accredited and teachers being certified. Although the 4K policy was intended to provide supplemental state and federal funding to the ECE community, which was chronically underfunded, only the corporate childcare site benefitted economically. Additional costs, for example, unfunded second language and special education support, actually cost the public school and other private preschool more money than they received.
Wilinski presented a much-needed teachers perspective on 4K experiences. Many hoped that 4K would bring about positive change for teachers including more opportunities for career advancement and elevated status. Although 4K public schools did create teacher positions, many were filled internally by teachers from other grades, which was frustrating for some educators. Elementary teachers moving into 4K were not necessarily qualified to teach pre-K. One teacher found that associating pre-K with K-12 education reinforced the value of ECE among families and increased respect for early childhood educators. Unfortunately, since there were no regulations on 4K teacher salaries, this newfound respect did not translate to higher salaries, and the discrepancy in pay between teachers at ECE and elementary educators persisted. Through the voices of the three ECE teachers working at the 4K sites, Wilinski demonstrated the need to consider how public pre-K policies influenced the ECE workforce.
When Pre-K Comes to School is packed with valuable information on the history of ECE and partnerships with K-12 institutions. In her concluding chapter, Wilinski provided suggestions for others with similar agendas. Although this last chapter is somewhat redundant to other sections of the book, overall, When Pre-K Comes to School is helpful to those seeking to develop community-pre-K partnerships and to those who conduct research on such policy. It provides educators and policymakers with an in depth look into the benefits and oftentimes hidden consequences of developing partnerships between K-12 schools and an array of ECE organizations.
All names of people and places are pseudonyms.
Barnett, W.S., Carolan, M.E., Fitzgerald, J., & Squires, J.H. (2012). The state of preschool 2012: State preschool yearbook. New Brunswick, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research.
Barnette, W.s., Friedman, A.H., Hustedt, J.T., & Stevenson-Boyd, J. (2009). An overview of prekindergarten policy in the United States: Program governance, eligibility, standards, and finance. In R.C. Pianta & C. Howes (Eds.), The Promise of Pre-K (pp. 3-30). Baltimore, MR: Brookes Publishing.