July 18, 2018
About two weeks ago, I sat in a frigid ballroom, listening to various academics present new research relevant to young children, those caring for and teaching young children, and families at the National Research Conference on Early Childhood. It was a stark contrast to where I had been just four days prior — in an unairconditioned classroom in Baltimore, discussing Fortnite with my few remaining fourth-grade students.
At first, jumping from teaching to research was fairly disorienting. However, I felt encouraged when I heard certain researchers and practitioners ground discussions of educational equity in positive, asset-based language. Jason Sachs of Boston Public Schools was met with applause when he bluntly reminded the audience that “there’s nothing wrong with these kids.” And Iheoma Iruka of the HighScope Educational Research Foundation hit the nail on the head when she said that creating equity isn’t about “fixing students and families...it’s about changing adults.”
This kind of asset-based thinking among practitioners and researchers alike is vital when meaningfully addressing educational inequity. To help struggling schools, we must encourage programs and practices that value the human capital already present in communities — like in early educators and families — before we try to fix things that may seem broken.
After leaving the conference, I took away three big strategies that would empower poorly compensated early educators and low-income families. At the school level, district, school, or program leaders must equip early educators with an accessible, evidence-based, culturally relevant curriculum that serves all children. At the community level, local leaders must better support the physical, mental, and social-emotional wellbeing of early educators and families as well as provide more locally-based economic opportunities. All of these methods focus on fostering long-term educational equity by healing historically disenfranchised communities through greater educator and family empowerment.
Provide early educators with an evidence-based, culturally relevant curriculum
Evidence-based curricula consist of research-based practices that are proven successful by objective evidence, usually educational research or performance metrics. Sachs explained that effective, evidence-based curriculum encourages “interactions” between the child and the educator, rather than rote memorization, and includes different exploratory activities that are gradually taught to children in a “warm and supportive” environment.
In addition to being evidence-based, the curriculum must be culturally relevant (or responsive) to directly address educators’ potential implicit racial biases. Culturally responsive pedagogy is innately inclusive and validates students’ wide variety of lived experiences. Culturally responsive teachers maintain high expectations for their students while scaffolding material to meet all learners where they are. At the conference, members of Bank Street’s Center on Culture, Race & Equity presented their Change Model, which promotes culturally responsive pedagogy in school districts and shows teachers what asset-based thinking looks like in the classroom. Not only does cultural responsiveness “show affection,” said Lisa Gordon of Bank Street’s CCRE, but it’s a key component of effective teaching and learning.
If we expect early educators to prepare all children for kindergarten, we must equip them with a curriculum that’s engineered to do so. Evidence-based, culturally-relevant curricula grounded in complex tasks and meaningful interactions give early educators a clear roadmap to school readiness. Even further, encouraging evidence-based curricula as standard across all early care and education settings could help to ensure more equitable school experiences, as all children — provided the curricula is well-implemented — would learn from the same high-quality, research-based strategies.
Support the physical, mental, and social-emotional wellbeing of early educators and families
Research has shown time and time again that trauma and toxic stress adversely affect a child’s ability to learn. However, many early educators are also burdened by difficult life circumstances that lead to stress that can impact their ability to perform on the job. Considering the fact that child care workers with families participate in public assistance programs at more than double the rate compared to other workers, we must do a better job compensating those who take care of and teach young children.
At the conference, I learned about several research-based programs that aim to support early educators and families who may experience trauma or stress themselves. “Mom’s Empowerment” is a parenting program for mothers who suffer from trauma caused by domestic violence. The program encourages mothers to openly discuss the impact of violence on their child’s development, while connecting to other women with shared experiences.
The Just Beginnings “Baby Elmo” Program also empowers families by providing young, incarcerated parents with parenting guidance and structured contact with their children. The program is based on research that examined the impact of mass-incarceration on parental relationships and aims to strengthen families, even while a parent is incarcerated.
Both of these programs focus on supporting caretakers and building familial relationships, regardless of adverse circumstances. Since research has shown that familial involvement has a positive impact on academic achievement, helping families navigate relationships with their children will ultimately strengthen both schools and communities as a whole.
Provide economic opportunities for low-income families
As mentioned earlier, economic insecurity can be a major source of stress for many early educators and families. Dual-generation programs promote equity by simultaneously addressing the needs of both children and the adults in their lives, by proving both child care and job training, for example. At the conference, Cindy Decker from CAP Tulsa discussed CareerAdvance, a free career training program that provides coaching, education, and employment connections to families in the area. Programs like CareerAdvance place asset-based thinking at its core. As Decker explained, these programs don’t view parenthood as a barrier, but instead as “a way to help parents improve when they’re increasingly motivated” after having children.
Though Decker admitted that the program has some limitations, like income level and English language proficiency requirements, the program’s long-term vision is to help communities heal through increased access to economic opportunities. This is beneficial on multiple levels, as stronger families mean stronger communities, and stronger communities lead to stronger schools.
When creating more equitable school environments, early educators and families must be placed at the center. Even further, any effort must meaningfully seek to acknowledge the lived experiences of community members while offering long-term, sustainable solutions that are available to all — like quality curricula in the schools, effective programs that support public wellbeing, and accessible jobs.