On Thursday, more than 50,000 public school children in New York embarked on their formal education as the city officially began its expanded prekindergarten program, the marquee undertaking of Bill de Blasio's mayoralty. The days leading up to the start of the school year were as frantic as anyone might have predicted - staffing and supplying the program have been compressed into just a few months. Facing safety concerns and other issues, several centers were unable to open; others faced delays.
Logistics are not the true, ultimate measure of the program's efficiency, obviously. The goal of the early-education initiative is to narrow the achievement gap between those growing up in the world of Central Brooklyn and those growing up in the world of West End Avenue. But implicit in the city's approach is the determination to validate a particular ideology on a broad scale - the idea that progressive education has merits for children who haven't been in the company of parents providing ceaseless background noise in the form of conversations about the mechanics of Congress or their favorite Jane Austen adaptations or the idiosyncrasies of Roman traffic or the history of bagels.
Under the stewardship of Carmen Fariña, the schools chancellor, who has spoken frequently about her commitment to joyful learning, more and more poor children will theoretically be taught as the city's affluent children are, which is to say according to the principles of immersive, play-based, often self-directed and project-driven learning.
There is hardly an elite, private preschool in the city that doesn't align itself with the philosophies of Reggio Emilia, an educational model that arose in Italy after World War II and gained prominence in the States in the 1990s with the notion that children must have some control over the course of their learning and must be given a means to express the various languages they possess. Art, music and imaginative play assume a significant role.
If there has been little or no discussion of what will actually be taught in the city's prekindergarten classes, it is in some part because a specific curriculum will be selected by each individual principal or program administrator from an array of options. The overarching theory, though, is that children will acquire knowledge and social skills through interactive guided play.
Different corners of the classroom will be devoted to various kinds of play - blocks, for instance, or dramatic play. Certain subjects will be taught intensely for one to three weeks at a time. If a teacher is doing a segment on botany, a child may choose to open a flower shop in the area devoted to dramatic play, as Sophia Pappas, the city's director of early education, explained to me. If a group of children spontaneously decide one day to open a restaurant, she said, a teacher might suggest to them that the way to remember what their friends have ordered is to write the orders down. The hope is that the child will then begin to try and sound out the spelling of a word like "pizza."
Scholars who study early childhood education see the distinction between this looser, contextually based pedagogy and more straightforward, academic instruction as a false dichotomy. And they see little validity in the argument that a more progressive approach merely benefits those middle-class children who come to school with much bigger vocabularies and reserves of knowledge than poorer children.