• Felix Montes, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • April 2016 •

In 2011, the city of San Antonio took a decisive step forward toward universal preschool education. The city approved the Pre-K4SA plan, with the goal to improve the quality and quantity of prekindergarten education for all 4-year-olds in San Antonio. Based on research findings demonstrating that prekindergarten investment has the most impact on overall education outcomes for a community, then Mayor Julián Castro convened a taskforce that recommended the development of a high-quality prekindergarten program servicing many of the 5,700 4-year-old children who did not participate in full-day prekindergarten education in the city at that time (Posner, 2014; Lantigua-Williams, 2016).

As the Nobel Memorial Prize winner and expert in the economics of human development, James Heckman (2011) stated: “Traditionally, equity and efficiency are viewed as competing goals. One can be fair in devising a policy, but it often happens that what is fair is not economically efficient. Conversely, what is efficient may not be fair. What is remarkable is that there are some policies that both are fair – i.e., promote equity – and promote economic efficiency. Investing in the early years of disadvantaged children’s lives is one such policy.”

Cunha, et al., (2010) demonstrated early investment efficiency through an econometric analysis, conjecturing that it would raise the payoff from future investments. The San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the University of Texas at San Antonio, and IDRA produced a report that supported that conclusion locally (SAHCC, 2014). There is no question about the need and long-term effectiveness of investing in universal prekindergarten education.

The question now is one of quality. As an advocate for high-quality education for all children, IDRA is deeply concerned about this issue. This article offers some guidance in this regard, through three scenarios based on comments I heard in some of my classroom observations and teacher interviews.

Supporting Children’s Development

One teacher said, “As long as no one is hurt at the end of the day, we had a good day.” Even now, after everything we have learned in the literature about the importance of the early education, many still see prekindergarten classrooms as a sort of glorified child care. I have observed prekindergarten classrooms that are chaotic, where there is constant yelling, students running around, and the whole day seems to move slowly and painfully. The teacher’s main emphasis is on discipline and asserting her authority over the students.

Needless to say, this is not good either for the students or the teachers. One solution is to implement a student-centric, center-based, content-rich curriculum that fosters the development of children’s non-cognitive and cognitive skills. In this approach, children collaborate with each other to organize their work, share resources, and prioritize and sequence activities so that non-cognitive skills (perseverance, self-regulation, forward-thinking behavior, social and emotional skills) are always at the forefront of their learning. Teachers help by mediating when there is conflict, setting the rules and providing advice.

Once the process is set in motion, children become the main actors, negotiating, hypothesizing, proposing, investigating and reporting results. Each learning situation involves both the core content (science, art, literacy, math, or music) and the social component, in which children negotiate among themselves to carry out the center-based task involved.

Valuing Language

Another teacher stated: “I’m so proud of this kid. He totally stopped speaking Spanish and now speaks only English.” While such sentiments are less prevalent today, there still are educators and even systems that consider it an achievement to turn children away from speaking Spanish or another native language to solely speaking English. This is bad on at least two counts.

First, there is the obvious damage to the child’s cultural heritage, family cohesion, and psychological development, particularly to non-cognitive skills. Second, there is the waste of a significant resource children bring to the school. Although many minority and low-income children may not yet have the English skills expected by the school, they bring to school “funds of knowledge” that, in many cases, are not valued by the school.

The solution is to implement a bilingual, bicultural curriculum. Because such a curriculum is asset-based – including culturally relevant pedagogy – students’ funds of knowledge are incorporated into the learning process, thereby stimulating cognitive and non-cognitive skills development across populations.

Valuing Early Childhood Teachers

“We had a pre-service with 20 other teachers; To be honest, I had no idea what they were talking about most of the time,” stated a teacher in an interview. Many schools and school districts concentrate their professional development efforts in one or a few workshops that teachers are required to attend to be ready for the upcoming year. Often, teachers get little from those workshops that address instructional delivery in the abstract. This is particularly true of prekindergarten teachers, who typically have limited education, earning just above the minimum wage.

Part of the solution is to support teachers in developing personalized professional development plans. As they achieve their goals, which might include completing an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, their salaries tend to increase. An important issue here is that this is a long-term proposition, and many people are unwilling or unable to invest the time and money, and commitment, that such an effort entails.

Since this will not immediately improve the situation in the classroom, a complementary approach is a professional development program that emphasizes working closely with the teachers and teacher aides through collaborative planning, problem solving, mentoring, classroom demonstrations, observations and debriefings. This close collaboration has been found effective in previous settings.

For example, IDRA found that the classroom demonstration is the single most important intervention strategy in the context of a cognitive academic language learning based collaborative. A participating principal stated: “The actual demonstrations are invaluable tools that very seldom get used. It’s very important to see these strategies work or not work with your own students. That makes for a good relationship between the teachers and presenters. The demos are really special.” (Montes, 2002)

In summary, the goal of a prekindergarten program should be to make every child ready cognitively and non-cognitively to enter grade school. The professional development goal should be the improvement in teacher knowledge base of building foundations for preschool literacy and quality of teaching. For example, training should emphasize implementation of asset-based activities, promoting phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, fluency, text comprehension and writing development. This is best accomplished through mentoring experiences, classroom demonstrations, and a professional learning community designed to support changes in teacher practices.

To sustain this process, IDRA has developed a curriculum, Semillitas de Aprendizaje, which includes a 10-unit guide to facilitate early childhood bilingual literacy development (English-Spanish). Each unit has a set of classroom activities that include a morning song, storytelling, literacy connection with STEM explorations, center activities, phonemic awareness, writing and alphabet knowledge, English transition, family connections and informal assessment. With the appropriate professional development approach and curricular support, your prekindergarten can achieve its goal of improving all children’s school readiness.


Cunha, F., & J.J. Heckman, S.M. Schennach. “Estimating the Technology of Cognitive and Noncognitive Skill Formation,” Econometrica (May 2010) 78 (3), 883-931.

Heckman, J.J. “The Economics of Inequality: The Value of Early Childhood Education,” American Educator (Spring, 2011) v35 n1 p31-35 (ERIC Number: EJ920516).

Lantigua-Williams, J. “Big Plans for Toddlers in San Antonio,” The Atlantic (March 6, 2016).

Montes, F. “Enhancing the Content Areas Through a Cognitive Academic Language Learning Based Collaborative in South Texas,” Bilingual Research Journal (2002) 26(3).

Posner, L. “The Argument is Over: Pre-K Works and Should be Universal in Texas,” The San Antonio Express-News (June 14, 2014).

San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The Impact of Education on Economic Development in Texas (San Antonio, Texas: San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, 2014).

Felix Montes, Ph.D., is a senior education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at felix.montes@idra.org.

[©2016, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2016 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]