Where the Promise of Preschool Ends

Where the Promise of Preschool Ends

Arne Duncan and Eric Holder at a D.C.–area elementary school, March 2014 (Dept. of Education/Flickr)

This August, as I look over names of my incoming prekindergarten and kindergarten students, my attention is divided. I’m also focused on Ferguson. At an assembly on August 14 in Washington, D.C.’s Malcolm X Park, I joined the hundreds gathered in sadness and anger about the shooting of Michael Brown. Among the crowd in D.C. were a white woman and her toddler. The child held a sign that read, “My friends deserve to live!” I could see the little girl as a future student in my class, alongside the two boys who held “Don’t shoot” signs in the heartbreaking photo that circulated on Twitter earlier that week.

Meanwhile, in Ferguson, local police forces unleashed tear gas, rubber bullets, and dogs on protesters. They arrested journalists trying to charge their cell phones in a McDonald’s. The chief of police repeated his refusal to release the name of the officer who shot Brown, an unarmed teen.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did not mention the events in Ferguson when, a day earlier, he announced a grant competition that will allow states to expand and improve their early childhood infrastructure. This initiative, he said, reflects “the most important single step we can take to improve the future of our young people.”

Duncan is one of the prominent education reform advocates to have adopted the mantra that “education is the civil rights issue of our time.” He invoked it as recently as last month, in a fiftieth-anniversary commemoration of the passing of the Civil Rights Act at Howard University. Does that make early childhood education the single most important step toward achieving civil rights today?

It shouldn’t take a tragedy like the death of Michael Brown to make us realize that Duncan takes the promise of preschool a step too far.

One might expect an early childhood educator to be the first to say that preschool can be the answer to all of our nation’s problems, that it can be both an anti-poverty vaccine and an antidote to centuries of racial inequality. But I won’t.

Of course, as an early childhood educator, I believe early learning experiences can have a positive and lasting effect on young people. In our classrooms, we strive to create micro-societies founded in respect, curiosity, and joy, qualities we want our society at large to reflect. We aim to cultivate habits of mind that will help children make healthy decisions that show respect for themselves and others. In our classrooms, we reach children who may pursue owning a small business, as Michael Brown wished, and children who may become police officers. We hope our lessons about treating each other fairly, asking for help, learning from others, and pursuing a passion can carry our students forward. It’s work I love doing.

The research on early childhood education shows that high-quality preschool can improve high-school graduation rates and reduce arrest, obesity, and mortality rates. Children who attend quality early childhood programs are more likely to read proficiently by third grade than peers who didn’t. These are phenomenal outcomes.

But in the push for preschool, politicians and policymakers draw on encouraging data about public health outcomes to then take their argument a step further. They promise a near eradication of inequality. Early childhood education will “make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind,” according to President Obama. These programs will make sure children are “able to compete” and “more able to pursue their own dreams,” agrees Hillary Clinton.

Austerity and political gridlock make it so that advocates of nearly any government spending must make grand promises. Their investment cannot solve just one problem; it must solve all problems. But with education reformers’ efforts to position education as the civil rights issue of our time, this kind of thinking unsurprisingly hits a bump. As the situation in Ferguson makes abundantly clear, civil rights might be the civil rights issue of our time—and fighting inequity in education is just one part of that larger struggle. A high school education, as has been widely noted, didn’t save Michael Brown’s life. Michael Brown’s mother drove this message home in her outpouring to reporters. “You took my son away from me. Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate?” she said, referring to her efforts to combat his hopelessness about his prospects as a young black man in Ferguson.

Grand promises about early childhood education do our children a disservice. They take the pressure off of all possible actors in a struggle for equity, and assign the task of restoring the illusory American dream to one arena. As the protest tots’ signs remind us, though, preschoolers’ lives will be demarcated by policies not only about preschool but about primary and secondary school, housing and economic development, taxation, juvenile justice, voting rights, racial profiling, and also, policing.

To announce the preschool grant, the Secretary of Education headed to Hug Me Tight Childlife Center in Pittsburgh. There, Duncan leaned in close to a young black boy who was wearing a smock and poised to work on a project with watercolors. That boy will grow up to be a young black man. Are we prepared to lean in close, to listen to his ideas and his dreams, when he’s long outgrown the smock?


Amy Rothschild is an early childhood educator in Washington, D.C. You can read more of her writing here.


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