Q-and-A with Barbara Bowman

Blog Post
Feb. 22, 2009

For the third installment in our series on Illinois and Chicago, Early Ed Watch talked to Barbara T. Bowman, chief early childhood education officer for the Chicago Public Schools. Bowman's experience runs deep. She co-founded the Erikson Institute and has served as president of the NAEYC. Early childhood advocates say she will probably be named to the Presidential Early Learning Council that President Obama has pledged to create. At the moment, she said, she is a consultant to the U.S. Department of Education, "making recommendations to Arne Duncan on how to improve the department's emphasis on early childhood."

Here is an abridged transcript of our conversation about how the Chicago public school system strives to provide free, high-quality preschool opportunities for all 3- and 4-year-old children from low-income families. The system allows families to choose from five different types of preschools, including some in childcare centers run by outside agencies. The lead teacher in each preschool classroom must have a bachelor's degree and teacher certification from the state of Illinois.

February 17: All Eyes on Illinois…
February 19: Duncan’s Record in Chicago
Today: Q-and-A with Barbara Bowman
Next up: What’s been cut


Teacher quality is often mentioned as a key to reform, yet teachers at preschools outside of the public schools are paid very little. And if preschools don't pay much, they have trouble recruiting good teachers. Under your system in Chicago, which includes preschools in community-based agencies, how do you cope with this?

When we fund a community agency, we fund it for a Type 4 teacher [which is an early childhood teacher according to Illinois's certification criteria.] And last year we required the agencies to pay their lead teachers a minimum of $40,000 a year to be competitive with CPS. Some of the childcare centers preferred to set their own teacher salaries. So now we give the agencies a flat fee from which they are required to pay their teacher salaries. The fee is based on a per-pupil allocation.

In addition we are trying to increase teacher quality by recognizing that agencies must pay higher salaries to retain teachers. So we are working on a way to give agencies extra money for longevity, for having teachers who stay with the program for several years.

In infant programs, too, there are things that agencies can do to get extra money for quality, like having a trained infant specialist.

What are some trade-offs that you've had to consider as you build out these programs? I'm thinking, for example, of a hypothetical preschool that has been given an increase in funding but has to make a choice: Should the money go toward hiring more teachers, thereby reducing its child-to-staff ratios? Or should it be used to increase the pay of teachers already there?

There isn't much guidance in the research on that question in terms of what is most effective in improving quality. [And it's not an issue CPS confronts because the preschools and centers are already required to pay their teachers at a relatively high level.]

Instead, for us, one conundrum is between increasing ratios or reducing the number of hours per day. [In Illinois, the Preschool for All law provides funding for - and requires that providers deliver - just two-and-a-half hours of preschool instruction per day.]

In an ideal world, you wouldn't have to do either, I gather?


How do you ensure that the centers are, indeed, using this money to hire qualified teachers?

We ensure simply by checking to see if the teacher is qualified and there for the entire time. We don't look at their budgets anymore. I think people felt that was a little intrusive.

Now centers are finding that teachers won't work for them for less money so they are paying the teachers the higher rate anyway.

What would happen if, say, the state's Preschool for All program had to be cut back?

Right now, the legislature seems to be financially supportive. But if they started cutting back, it wouldn't be very long before we were in financial trouble. We would have to reduce the number of children. We couldn't serve the same number of children.

In some cases, different quality criteria come with different funding streams. How do you maintain control of quality when you are offering families multiple options for enrolling their children, like including Head Start, which comes with different rules based on its reauthorization? It seems very complicated.

It is. People keep saying, figure out a way to simplify these funding streams. I wish I could. But if you are talking quality, you have to take the funding wherever you can find it.

Any program through the Chicago Public Schools must have a credentialed teacher for the preschool portion of the day. Sometimes we find ourselves battling with our child care friends. They say they might need to use teachers who cover more than one classroom at a time or have directors in classrooms. And we have to say, over and over, that the teacher must be with the children the full two-and-a-half hours.

Also, you should know that our centers that also take Head Start money, they must for those two-and-a-half hours of preschool instruction have a certified teacher.

Another important thing to remember about this: The preschool program is free if it is located within the public schools. If the program is in a childcare center -- all centers provide full-day care -- we pay for the two-and-a-half hour preschool program but the parents have to pay for some part of the rest of their child's day. And these centers, they won't take the child unless they are there all day.

So that is what is available to parents looking for wrap-around care?

Yes. But they have to pay.

This method of providing outside agencies with money so they can afford to improve quality - do you see this as a model for involving community providers in the universal preschool movement?

Yes, I do because centers need the extra money if they are going to provide a higher quality program. The model of paying community centers to run a preschool program in their centers is a good model. It not only helps with overhead costs but it pays for the [credentialed or otherwise highly qualified] teacher.

Is there evidence that it works -- that by getting these extra funds, community providers are, in fact, improving in quality or hiring more qualified teachers?

This is the next thing on the agenda. This year we focused on helping them meet the standards established by the state, and next year we'll take a look at quality of their programs, and we'll differentiate their funding. Quality programs we'll fund. Those that are not, we won't. It will take a while but we have to do this. Just being in a program is not going to help kids. There is no question that many children are still not getting what they need in a preschool program.

Next, we need to begin to look at other markers of quality, like quality of the curriculum.

Are you putting together a study to look at this?

We started doing the ELLCO evaluation - it's a literacy-based assessment -- of our community partners' classrooms just like we do for the public school classrooms. Paying a decent salary and having credentials is just the first step. We are already talking to the centers about paying more attention to the curriculum, giving them additional help in training teachers to use assessments and providing them with math and literacy curriculum as appropriate.