To Build Equity, Look to Early Childhood Education by Lisa Peloquin, Instructional Designer

Oak Park is a Chicago suburb known for its commitment to equity and celebrating the diversity of its citizens. We’ve seen this community embrace diversity throughout its history, while other cities did little to address the broadening representation of races, income levels, and professions among their citizens. In 1973, as neighboring Chicago struggled with racial tensions and “white flight,” the Oak Park Village Trustees created a policy statement, “Maintaining Diversity in Oak Park,” which hailed the diversity of its citizens and the richness they brought to the community. “Such diversity is Oak Park’s strength,” the policy read.

This commitment to equity and diversity was echoed by the school districts’ 2016 vision: to “create a positive learning environment for all students that is equitable, inclusive, and focused on the whole child.”

Yet the district’s commitment to diversity was not having the intended impact in its schools. Achievement gaps persisted between black and white students, and the documentary America to Me further highlighted the inequitable educational experiences of Oak Park’s students.

These test scores and the film sparked an important conversation among Oak Park educators: how can we deepen our commitment to equity and inclusion in a way that truly benefits our students?

The answer actually lies with early childhood education.  

Early childhood educators have long held that in order to effectively teach, they must know each of their students and their families very well. Their commitment to knowing students is a foundational piece of the early learning experience and pedagogy. In the K-12 world, the intense focus on the standards and assessments can lead to classroom experiences that are not fully aligned to students. Teachers are left unknowing how they can best address students’ varied learning styles and needs to the point where relationships are forgone and students are disengaged.

That is why integrating the core of the early childhood pedagogy – understanding and addressing the whole child – is crucial to this mission of providing an equitable and inclusive learning environment.

Nobel Laureate James Heckman’s research on high-quality early childhood education programs shows that “high-quality birth-to-five programs for disadvantaged children can deliver a 13% per year return on investment” (García, Jorge Luis, James J. Heckman, Duncan Ermini Leaf, and María José Prados. “The Life-cycle Benefits of an Influential Early Childhood Program.” (2016)). These gains are so important for systemically underserved children and are realized when students have access to a high-quality early childhood experience. This experience is one that: 1. Focuses on the whole child; 2. Develops of cognitive and social and emotional skills; 3. Provides developmental resources for children and their families.

Recognizing the importance of teachers who are able to address the whole child is step one. Training them to effectively do so is step two – a step that is far too often overlooked, with professional development opportunities for early learning educators being scattershot, at best.

To support Oak Park’s early childhood educators as they work to deepen their commitment to equity in the classroom, last fall, the New Teacher Center joined the Collaboration for Early Childhood, a local Oak Park organization that supports early childhood programs and teachers across the community, to present a series on equity for early learning teachers. Over the course of six sessions, 30 participants ranging from public school kindergarten teachers, community center and park district preschool educators, to private school and home based day care staff learned how to talk about and address equity disparities in their early learning classrooms.

Gathering this diverse group of educators highlighted that the wide variability of access and funding to early childhood programming is, itself, an issue of equity, and provided fertile ground to discuss equity in education.

Coaching early childhood educators and providing them with equity-based trainings allowed them to explore how to be active in working towards greater equity. They learned to use students’ data and connect it to racial achievement gaps. They learned about different ways to advocate for resources where they are most needed with an understanding that when we better prepare young children, we circumvent learning gaps. And most importantly, they made the commitment to be being Anti-Bias Educators, as described by the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s description. This calls for teaching children to feel confident in their own identity, to appreciate differences, and to address unfairness.

The concept of equity is so complex. We tend to think we can only really address it with older students and their teachers. However the ideas of knowing each child, giving them each what they need, and teaching them to advocate for fairness, core ideas in early education, belong at the heart of every school. Our early learning educators know and practice this first-hand. Think of the type of schools we could have – the type of future students could have – if these ideas were the foundation of every level of learning.

Oak Park is the type of community where you can’t go to the grocery store without having a conversation about equity and diversity. It’s a part of the community and a priority among those who live there. Yet, as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor explains, “Until we get equality in education, we won’t have an equal society.” As we work towards greater equality in education, we should take lessons from the work of early childhood educators.

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