Effective early childhood education paves the way for school success and better life chances. This is a well-researched fact. Yet, a high percentage of young children in our country do not experience quality early childhood programs. One reason for this failure is the misconception that staff with minimum professional training and poverty line salaries are enough to deliver effective early childhood education. The truth is that better educational outcomes for children, especially those who begin life at social and economic disadvantage, require skilled, professional, well-compensated early childhood teachers. One of the first pioneering research studies to look at the outcomes of quality early childhood education, focused on the children who attended the
Perry Preschool Project (Ypsilanti, Michigan, 1962-1967). This was an experimental project that sought to raise the academic achievement and overall school success of preschoolers from low-income families. Following the Perry Preschool children into their adult years, the longitudinal study found measurably better high school and life outcomes for the children. It also demonstrated considerable economic benefits to society, with an estimated 7 to 10 percent return on each dollar invested in the preschool project. The positive outcomes for children coupled with the economic benefits became a primary justification for greater investment in early childhood education for children living in poverty, in the USA and many other countries. What did the Perry Preschool teachers do? As two of them, here is a summary of the ideas and practices that influenced our work. To begin with, we believed in the intelligence and capacity of all children to learn and were deeply committed to their growth and success. We understood that children’s best learning requires caring, empathetic relationships with their teachers. We recognized the integral connection of the children’s minds
and their social and emotional abilities. We also believed that learning experiences must incorporate the strengths of their families and the wider community. Perry Preschool required teachers to have college degrees in early childhood or primary education. Then, our knowledge and skills grew through weekly teacher meetings and professional development experiences on the job. These ongoing opportunities enabled us to regularly plan and assess our work and to actively shape the curriculum. By engaging in intentional teaching, we created individualized learning experiences within the framework of our program goals, taking into account each child’s individual developmental needs and life experiences. We balanced the use of child-initiated and teacher-directed learning experiences, and created new activities while also incorporating ideas from existing curricula. Building relationships with and working with the children’s families was another essential element of our Perry Preschool work. We knew that we needed the knowledge parents and other family members had about their children. We also understood that the family’s vital role in their children's development would continue long after our time with them. Each teacher worked with a group of individual families and their child each week at their homes. Through the weekly 1-2 hours, we built the communication and trust invaluable to working together for the benefit of the children. The Perry Preschool families connected to our racially diverse group of teachers and to our commitment to their children. They learned how to educationally support their children at home and at school. In turn, teachers gained better understanding of each child that only a family’s perspective can bring. The Ypsilanti administrators encouraged the teachers to use our knowledge, experience, and creativity. We were NOT expected to inflexibly implement a one-size-fits-all curriculum that did not take into account the needs of the children, families, and communities. Rather, we were empowered to act as professionals—and paid accordingly at the same rate as the elementary Ypsilanti school teachers. Early childhood programs shortchange children when teachers must unquestioningly carry out a one-size-fits-all curriculum, rather than be able to professionally shape the curriculum to the children they serve. Unfortunately, in too many early childhood programs, teachers are treated as non-professionals, especially in preschools and pre-K programs for children living in poverty. And, too many early childhood teachers receive poverty line or below wages. What the Perry Preschool teachers did all those years ago has become the touchstone for effective early childhood education today. Unfortunately, too many today claim that Perry Preschool’s high-quality teaching costs too much to expand to all communities. However, when all children have access to well-prepared teachers, children, families, communities, and society at large get a high return on the investment. And, it can be done because it is being done. Many of today’s high-quality early childhood programs do incorporate the best educational and professional teaching practices used at Perry Preschool. Some states and communities have raised quality standards for teachers while supporting the professional development of a diverse early childhood workforce. It’s worked well for parents, children and taxpayers. The failure to act on the need for high-quality programs harms our children and our nation’s future. What’s lacking is not the knowledge or capacity to expand high-quality early learning to all our children, but the will to do so in the richest country on earth. This is a problem that can be solved—especially when providers, educators and policymakers commit themselves to what works for children Anything less is doing less for children who deserve so much more.
Louise Derman-Sparks was a founding teacher in the Perry Preschool Program, nationally and internationally known for her work in early childhood education. Louise is faculty emeritus of Pacific Oaks College and an author, teacher and consultant on anti-bias education with children and adults.