Radicalizing Early Childhood Educators
by Robert Holland and Don Soifer of the Lexington Institute
The value of early childhood education in closing achievement gaps is a concept that has continued to gain prominence across American education. High-quality pre-kindergarten classrooms that incorporate research-based instructional programs are increasingly demonstrating that children from financially disadvantaged households do not need to arrive at their first day of kindergarten less prepared to learn than their peers from more prosperous homes.
But educators looking to make gains in early reading readiness are not the only ones eyeing the pre-kindergarten classroom door. Others harboring various agendas are also maneuvering teacher training channels, seeking opportunities to gain leverage in influencing young minds, some of which include decidedly murkier and even definitively radical elements.
“We believe that social justice and ecological teaching offers a much-needed vision for early childhood education in the face of the challenges weighing on the field and confronting the planet,” surmises Ann Pelo, editor of the anthology Rethinking Early Childhood Education, published by Rethinking Schools, which actively promotes a social-justice agenda.
Among the ways the textbook instructs early childhood educators to raise awareness in their classrooms is this observation, in a section about ways gender labels can be confusing: “Between 3 and 5 years of age, children try to figure out . . . what aspects of self remain constant. They wonder: Will I always be a girl or a boy?” Such a discussion raises questions of gay and lesbian identity, as well as bisexual and transgender (GLBT) roles. Far from the earshot of parents, introducing children to transgender identities does certainly empower teachers with opportunities to frame the ways children perceive the world and their role within it.
Education journals, such as that of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, direct teachers to pursue such questions further, using such approaches as “Adapt stories and songs to reflect and include GLBT families,” while warning that, “silence on this issue will have damaging outcomes for children.”
Often, teacher training programs move quickly past questions of race to focus early childhood teachers on perceptions of white privilege. “In order to develop robust action plans to challenge racism and privilege in their classrooms, early childhood education students need access to a range of anti-racist education resources,” argued a 2001 article in the journal, Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood. Its author proceeds to discuss “anti-racist leadership camps” where “unlearning racism” is a central element to teacher preparation.
Beyond simply publishing articles, some activist organizations espousing political agendas have become directly involved in early childhood education. Teaching for Change, a Washington, D.C.-based group that operates a popular chain of progressive coffeehouses and bookstores, has expanded into professional development and training programs for early childhood educators.
The group, whose stated mission is to “provide teachers and parents with the tools to transform schools into centers of justice where students learn to read, write, and change the world,” encourages teachers to “question and re-think the world inside and outside their classrooms.”
Teaching for Change places emphasis on civil rights history and lessons, but is rarely hesitant in associating its work with more radical progressivist proponents. It maintains a partnership with Rethinking Schools on the Zinn Education Project, dedicated to advancing the radical teachings of popular author Howard Zinn, and works closely with the National Coalition of Education Activists and the National Association for Multicultural Education. Since 2003, the Teaching for Change Early Childhood Equity Initiative has conducted professional development training for early childhood educators in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.