Early Childhood Education’s Roots in
This chapter examines how early childhood became part of the national discourse on social justice through its establishment during the War on Poverty and how this lens of socioeconomic and social justice continues to be woven through early education.
“What could it be this time?” Dr. Regina Williamson sighs and puts her palm on her forehead as she looks at the number on her cellphone. Her son Reginald’s child-care program, Promise Academy Child Development Center, is calling. She wonders what they could be calling her about in the less than 30 minutes since she dropped off her two sons. This is the third call in three weeks! The other two calls had forced her to cancel her office hours with students to rush to pick up one of the boys because the school indicated he was being aggressive with other children. She quickly looks at her calendar to see what appointments she would need to cancel.
Regina breathes a long, overwhelmed sigh. She and her husband have worked hard to provide their boys with the best education possible. They want their sons to be understood and well-liked by the teachers and students; this isn’t always easy, given that the boys are typically the only African American children in predominantly White preschools. She knows it can’t just be her boys, because she has heard other moms in the school talking about how their own children behave. They behave even worse than Reginald and Dawaan, yet they don’t get suspended. What is it about her boys? It just seems as though the teachers are too hard on them.
She slowly answers her cellphone. “Hello, Ms. Shaunda.”
These are questions that often ring in the minds of many Black parents. What could and should they be doing to make sure their children, especially boys, are not being suspended? Should they put them on medication to control their behavior? Should they just find relative care or homeschool their children? The truth is that even if Black parents medicate their children or pay for a behavioral specialist, there is still a high likelihood that their children will be suspended or excluded from learning for the same behaviors that barely register when White boys do it. Why is this the case? Both research and the lived experiences of Black families and other families of color indicate that Reginald and Dawaan receive inequitable experiences because they are Black and because their behaviors are seen as more threatening and uncontrollable compared to White boys.
A seminal study conducted by Yale researcher Walter Gilliam asked early education teachers to watch a video in which a Black boy, a Black girl, a White boy, and a White girl were seated at a table (Gilliam et al., 2016). The teachers were told that they would see children misbehaving and were asked to press a button when they saw a misbehavior. (Unbeknownst to the teachers, there were no misbehaviors from any of the children.) Teachers of all races pressed the button the most for Black children, indicating that the children were misbehaving. As part of the study, the teachers wore eye trackers so the researchers could collect data on where the teachers were looking. The data indicated that teachers were more likely to watch the Black children, especially the Black boy. This shows that the teachers were thinking that the Black boy was most likely to misbehave.
After participating in the study, the teachers were informed that the children actually were actors and that they were not misbehaving at all. When the teachers were asked why they thought the Black children misbehaved the most, they indicated they pressed the button because they thought they saw misbehavior or they anticipated a particular problem. For example, when the Black boy asked to share a toy, the teachers anticipated that he would become mad and aggressive in the near future. This video provides some level of confirmation for US Department of Education data that show Black public-preschool children are 3.6 times more likely than their White counterparts to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions (US Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, 2014). Black children represent only 18 percent of preschool enrollment but represent 48 percent of preschool children who receive one or more out-of-school suspensions. In comparison, White children represent 41 percent of preschool enrollment but only 28 percent of such children receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions. This disparity makes it clear that Black children are overrepresented in expulsion and suspension. The data have led researchers and many others to conclude that the reason for this is implicit, or unconscious, bias.
For centuries, Black and other non-White peoples, including indigenous populations, have been viewed as less than human and even animal-like in some instances, incapable of emotions, intelligence, and social skills. This perception has been the rationale for enslavement, internment camps, and genocide. The legacy of viewing people of color as threatening continues today in representations of these groups as criminal, dangerous, lazy, and unintelligent. Therefore, early childhood educators who see young Black boys as threatening, dangerous, and incapable of learning can view suspension and expulsion as reasonable courses of action.
Implicit bias is a set of automatic and uncontrolled cognitive processes that affect our attitudes toward others. These biases are thought to be involuntary and not under the conscious control of the individual and can lead to either favorable or unfavorable characterizations of others. Implicit biases can result in stereotyping along dimensions such as class, race, ethnicity, appearance, age, sexuality, religion, or disability. Implicit bias can be seen, for example, when we spend time talking to people who are similar to us and avoid those who don’t seem like us. It can be seen when teachers allow White children the independence to choose their work but don’t provide those choices for Black children because they worry that Black children may become uncontrollable. It is very important to stress that implicit bias is unconscious to the offender but is often obvious to the victim and may have deep and lasting effects. These biases and lack of learning opportunities for Black children are not what early program designers and administrators were thinking or worried about when they designed early childhood programs such as Head Start. While we all engage in biased behaviors, and many people face different experiences of bias, in this book we are particularly focused on and sensitive to the bias, racism, discrimination, and exclusionary practices against children, families, and communities of color, especially those of Black children. Bias against Black people is particularly salient and pervasive.
In his first State of the Union address in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson proposed the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA), which we now refer to as the War on Poverty (Zigler and Valentine, 1979). At the time of this proposal, there was a 19 percent poverty rate among families in the United States. The legislation established the Office of Economic Opportunity, which housed numerous programs designed to alleviate poverty, such as VISTA (now known as AmeriCorps VISTA), Job Corps (offering free education and vocational training to people sixteen to twenty-four years of age), and Head Start. Head Start was conceived as a community-based early childhood program intended to provide comprehensive services—cognitive, emotional, social, health, and nutrition—to preschool-age children from low-income households. As a former teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in Texas, President Johnson believed in the power of education to eradicate poverty.
At its inception in 1965, Head Start was an eight-week summer program located in community child-development centers throughout the country and serving more than 560,000 children (Administration for Children and Families, n.d.). Today, Head Start is a full-day, full-year program and serves infants and toddlers (in Early Head Start) as well as preschoolers (Bosland et al., 2011; Zigler, Gil...