02/05/2014 01:25 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2014

Finding the "Universal" in Pre K

The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives.
~Robert Maynard Hutchins

Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration released a report detailing its proposal for free Pre Kindergarten education. If all goes as planned, 53,000 New York City children will gain access to Pre K programs by September of this year. Though it will no doubt face scrutiny as it bounces around Albany, the mayor's plan has already accomplished a crucial goal: fostering a dialogue about what pre kindergarten should--and can--be.

At its best, Pre School is a time for self-discovery, a forum for building self-confidence. It is a place where, through intellectual stimulation, risk taking and respect, our children discover that going to school is about finding out who they are and what they can bring to the world. Perhaps most importantly, a strong Pre K program enables young learners to WANT to be engaged in the learning process for years to come - no matter where they come from and what odds are against them.

That is what the universal in Pre Kindergarten means to me, at least. And though I value the dialogue the de Blasio administration has established, I still fear that my view in not shared by all of those entrusted to drive another kind of universality forward - the "universal" of accessibility alone. So much of the rhetoric is focused on providing Pre K to as many children as possible, as quickly as possible, that we are at risk of losing sight of the importance of the quality of the experience itself.

Pre Kindergarten is not just Kindergarten-a year-earlier with guided learning of specific factual content. It is not a time for right and wrong answers; it is not a time for limiting interests or the scope of explorations. And it is most certainly not a time to ask every child to do the same thing at the same time- not even those in one classroom. More than anything else, Pre Kindergarten must be an individual journey facilitated by a teacher who acts as guide and mentor - not as the purveyor of right and wrong answers.

What we risk if we do not differentiate Pre Kindergarten in this way is not simply a wasted year of schooling and all the spending that goes along with that. What we are really risking is that our next generation of learners will become convinced, at an even younger age, that there is no experimentation in learning, that there is no joy in successful failure and worst of all, that there is no purpose to school but passing tests and getting through.

If this comes to pass, then our universally accessible Pre K will become synonymous with the universal failure of our children.

But, quite simply, this does not have to be a foregone conclusion. If we fill our Pre Kindergarten classrooms with the wonder of nature, if they are rich with collaboration and brimming with individualized challenge, we will succeed. If they help our children to discover their own selves as learners and empower them through that process, we will have given them a solid foundation for future success. In this form Universal Pre Kindergarten will accomplish the most important aims of education: teaching future generations of children that school is where they will discover their very best selves, where they will learn how to leverage that "best self" for future success, and where they will then be motivated to acquire the skills necessary to sustain and improve their world in the years to come.