Big Publishers See A Big Opportunity In Universal Pre-K

For Scholastic, Houghton Mifflin and others, Bill de Blasio's signature pre-K legislation means big business.

When more than 50,000 children enroll in Mayor Bill de Blasio's signature prekindergarten program in New York City this fall, it will signal a major victory for advocates of early childhood education. To the country's largest education publishers, it will be a sign of something else, too: a major growth opportunity in a sphere that has, so far, been relatively small, fragmented, and underfunded.

Yesterday, Scholastic sponsored the first annual Preschool Nation Summit, where the company's CEO appeared alongside some of the pre-K world's biggest celebrities: de Blasio, the keynote speaker, his schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, plus early childhood researchers, major nonprofit directors, and a senior advisor to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

"The idea that every four-year-old, and someday maybe even every three-year-old, could be in some kind of pre-K classroom in the near future — we're certainly looking at that like a business opportunity," said Francie Alexander, an executive at Scholastic. "We're here, we're ready to go."

Mayor de Blasio's pre-K plan alone will add 30,000 more four-year-olds to New York City preschools this fall, and another 20,000 in 2015. That means an addition of thousands of teachers to be trained and classrooms to be outfitted, plus a an influx of funding focused on quality and evaluation metrics — all things that will open doors for publishers of preschool products and curricula. De Blasio's "Pre-K For All" is also being hailed as a national model, one that could be replicated in major cities nationwide.

Scholastic is especially well-positioned to serve the ever-expanding number of pre-K classrooms, Alexander said, and not just because it has been "preschool-oriented before it was cool." The company's signature curricula, Read 180 and Math 180, are designed as interventions for students below grade level; universal preschool expansions like de Blasio's are aimed primarily at "catching up" low-income children with their middle class peers. Scholastic is also armed with a trove of popular pre-school characters, from Clifford the Big Red Dog to the Magic School Bus, that it incorporates into its curriculum.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a major K-12 publisher which has so far had limited involvement in pre-K curriculum, recently beefed up its early childhood offerings with the acquisition of Curiosityville, a math and literacy video game platform, and an investment in its pre-K curriculum, Splash into Pre-K.

Houghton Mifflin, too, sees a huge growth opportunity in universal pre-K expansions like de Blasio's. In addition to simply adding more students and classrooms, businesses hope that universal pre-K initiatives will make operating within the early childhood space easier.

"The market has been incredibly fragmented in the past, with funding from so many different places," said Carla Christenson, who heads up the company's early learning initiatives. "It's a lot easier reaching kids in universal pre-K programs like in Georgia, where there's fairly well-organized initiatives."

The fragmented market has long been an impediment for businesses: unlike in centralized school systems, pre-K classrooms can be operated by churches, community organizations, and individuals, meaning curriculum decisions are made on a small scale. And even universal programs like Head Start are historically underfunded, with limited access to technology.

Publishers are counting on the push for universal pre-K to solve some of those obstacles. In some places, like Washington D.C., prekindergarten classrooms function within the public school system, with centralized funding and curriculum decisions. In others, states and cities organize lists of recommended curricula, with an eye towards improving historically shaky quality, which Christensen said can make "a big difference" for companies like Houghton Mifflin. And pre-K funding been steadily climbing in almost all states, where, unlike with other education issues, support for universal pre-K expansion is bipartisan and nearly universal.

A central worry in universal pre-K expansion is about quality, especially in instructors. For example, Head Start, a federal pre-K program that was a signature piece of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society antipoverty campaign, has been plagued by criticisms that the program's early gains disappear as children grow older. Many Head Start teachers do not hold bachelor's degrees and can make under $30,000 a year.

"A lot of early childhood classrooms have teachers that are weakly trained and don't have the skill set to integrate curriculum effectively," said Michael Levine, the director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, an education research group. "That's changing with universal pre-K."

As a result, publishers looking for growth from universal pre-K have made teacher quality and training central pieces of their curriculum. "A big part of our future is around professional development and helping teachers," said Houghton Mifflin's Christenson.

Quality concerns have led other companies to focus on student and teacher assessments, which early childhood experts consider a key part of universal pre-K expansion. Amplify, News Corporation's education arm, offers assessment software for pre-K students that measures social and emotional development alongside more traditional academic skills.

At the Preschool Nation summit in Scholastic's headquarters yesterday, de Blasio trumpeted his pre-K program in New York as a sign of a future where every four-year-old would have access to public pre-K. "You see now the outline of a truly national movement," he said. "You see all over the country people finding their way, all different paths, all variations on a theme, but finding their way to major investments in early childhood education."