Centering Equity: Racial Equity in the Early Learning Classroom—More than a Buzzword for More than a Gap

Local early learning programs have emerged that are working to break the silence on race in teaching and learning practice
Blog Post
Nov. 5, 2019

New America’s Early & Elementary Education Policy team is partnering with School Readiness Consulting on the blog series Centering Equity: Innovations and Local Solutions in Early Childhood Education. This blog series works to center equity in early childhood education. Through highlighting local innovation and promising practices, we aim to create space to lift up local voice and efforts as integral to advancing early childhood equity from community to larger systems-level change.

The early learning field has had many ways of “talking the talk” about racial inequity in recent decades. Terms such as the “achievement gap” have been coined as common and palatable language to acknowledge the problematic disparity in outcomes for children of color. This same concept has been reframed in popular usage as the “opportunity gap” to shift the blame for these disparities off children and families of color and onto the systemic factors that are working against them. These ideas have been connected to discussions on the “wealth gap,” the “discipline gap,” and, more recently, the “belief gap.”

Nationally, we have seen generations of attempts to close the gaps for young children through initiatives aimed at boosting achievement, availing “opportunity,” legislating discipline, and even attempting to change the beliefs and behaviors of teachers. But despite decades of effort, the most pronounced school readiness gaps—those between white and black children—have not budged.

So why do we continue to focus on the gaps? Perhaps it’s because we can easily see them, name them, measure them, and imagine new interventions to “close” them. Nonetheless, the lack of progress charges us to acknowledge the racial disparities that exist much closer to the heart of teaching and learning. For instance, let’s consider the overwhelming whiteness of early childhood curriculum and instruction. These core components have been researched, designed, authored, edited, published, selected, and mainstreamed by a chain of predominantly white individuals. This gap persists in the reality that the tools of teaching and learning continue to be defined without meaningful integration of the values, realities, and prevailing wisdom of communities of color, and without a nuanced perspective of child development across race. When we consider the magnitude of this fundamental inequity, it is not difficult to imagine how it has contributed to the gaps in teaching and learning with which we now contend.

Recognizing this disconnect, local early learning programs have emerged that are working to break the silence on race in teaching and learning practice. For programs like the Seattle Preschool Program (SPP) and FirstSchool, this process has involved transformational commitments to racial equity. Common themes among these initiatives show up as acknowledging the role of race in children’s development and authentically integrating culture and community. For these programs, this has been a starting point for imagining curriculum and instruction with real potential to narrow the gaps.

Children who attend a SPP classroom experience teaching and learning that is designed with race in mind. This includes environments and interactions that are designed to promote racial identity and anti-racist development. Sonja Griffin, Early Learning Manager at SPP, asserts that “children have a strong lens for equity and social justice. They know when things are not right. I believe that early learning work IS racial equity work. Racism is a learned behavior and we can stop teaching it.” She points out that this approach is undergirded by a lived commitment that racial equity and anti-bias topics are a key component of job-embedded professional learning for all SPP teachers. With the support of instructional coaching, teachers have the freedom and support to successfully bring race and culture to the forefront of curriculum and instruction.

Sharon Ritchie, founder of FirstSchool echoes the importance of supporting teachers to lead with a nuanced awareness of children, including their racial and social identities. Sharon describes a parallel process of learning for both teachers and children that “moves away from a culture of evaluation toward a culture of inquiry and growth.” For children, this looks like classroom environments that are designed to be collaborative, with flexible seating and spaces. It involves curriculum that is grounded in project-based learning and focused on the development of communication and executive functioning skills. Meanwhile, teachers are supported through ongoing professional learning to integrate this cultural shift into their own concept of teaching and learning. For instance, as Sharon explains, “We move teachers away from behavior systems that rely on bribes and threats and set kids up to be humiliated and shamed over and over, especially black boys .... Instead, the goal is to build intrinsic motivation for the whole learning community, and teachers can accomplish this through a deep examination of who children are and what they need.”

To get beyond the buzzwords of racial equity and put real action behind intention will require states, funders, and other decision-makers to affirm that, when it comes to the much-touted ideal of “child-centered” curriculum and instruction, children of color count too. A good place to start is with a commitment to learning from localized programs. And then, as Sharon Ritchie explains, “bringing local innovation to scale is less about expansion and duplication, and more about listening to communities about what works and what matters most, and lifting up the big ideas to apply in different contexts.”