My take on: “The Great Disconnect in Early Childhood Education”


I got a few good early learning books for Christmas and one of them was “The Great Disconnect in Early Childhood Education: What We Know vs. What We Do” by Michael Gramling.  I read most of it that day while I stuffed myself with Christmas food.  It’s a quick, good read and I really hope more early learning people, especially current EY educators will consider reading it.  Though it focuses on how things have gotten so messed up in the US, I think the dynamics are basically the same.  Gramling does a great job at explaining why and how this gap between “What We Know vs. What We Do” in the early years has come into being.

(First off let me say that I am from the US.  I’ve only been in the UK since March of 2016.  I think many issues in early learning are similar but am willing to accept I still have lots to learn about the lay of the land here.)

Gramling focuses on the American Head Start system, that started out in the 1960’s as part of the U.S. government’s War on Poverty Program.  Gramling portrays these initiatives as coming because the country “suddenly awoke to discover injustice and suffering in their midst.”  I’d argue, and I don’t think Gramling would disagree, that these were actually concessions to and co-optations of the dynamic and militant movements for racial and economic justice at the time.

Head Start was a childcare program for poor kids attached with additional social services for the children as well as their families.  Additionally it expected parental involvement on advisory boards and offered many opportunities for employment.  It was an ambitious program that has and probably continues to make real differences in poor people’s lives.

Their stated goal was to eradicate poverty in the US.  They obviously have failed tremendously.  Not only do we continue to have an achievement gap, inequality in the US is greater than ever before.  This all then begs questions of how childcare programs and social services can eradicate something that is inherent to free market capitalism.

Debates around education and inequality make me quite angry.  Professional experts and politicians debate things endlessly, but common sense and science alike show that is all pretty straight forward.  Kids growing up in poverty face an immense amount of attacks on their very physical, emotional and cognitive development and no matter what educational pundits like to say about what style of education is best, wealth continues to be the strongest indicator of future individual success.  On one hand I stand by empirical research.  On the other hand part of me can’t help but shout “no sh*t!” to these findings that get reiterated every few years.  Do we really need another study to tell us that people who grow up in economically stable households will more often not only have a better start in life, but will have a financial cushion to help them through their individual trials in life?  Who out there is waiting for just the right report to finally accept that racism effects every level of education in the US?

If the Government gives you money, you have to prove to them and the public at large that you’re using it correctly.  To justify their funding, Head Start has over the years looked towards on data collection and assessment of children’s learning to prove they are doing their job.  This, Gramling argues, is where Head Start (and the field in general) has fallen into the “Accountability Trap” where they focus on external standards at the expense of the young children in their care in the here and now.

Driven by performance objectives, teachers view children not as people with whom they are building relationships, but as walking, talking sets of deficits that need fixing.  As a result, most interactions between teacher and child become bereft of any authentic human quality and take on instead a stilted, ritualized quality that is unique to the world of early childhood education.

In later chapters, Gramling reminds us all, that not only do young children not develop in a easily linear or quantifiable manner, they are growing and learning constantly, and way beyond the pathetic aims of most “structured” early learning settings.  He shares stories of children learning and skillfully learning language through everyday life, watching and listening to the adults who think they aren’t paying attention.

In part, because families underestimate their child’s ability to learn and think is precisely why they inadvertently provide such rich language.  They assume they can talk over their child’s head with no consequence.  Ironically, in standards-driven early childhood education, the child is is also completely underestimated, but with results that are completely opposite: he is not provided with rich language at all, but is expose to tiny sound bites.  For example, in order to “teach” the precocious four-year-old who eavesdropped on his sister words that describe human emotion, the curriculum will provide the teacher with a lesson plan that says, “The child will identify pictures of people who are sad and happy.”

Although the child’s developing brain absorbs information like a sponge just waiting to be totally immersed in language, in standards-driven early childhood education, we dispense language with an eye dropper.

He end up drawing our attention to the vocabulary or language gap between children of poor and rich families and he recommends more laid back, child-centered programs where children can engage in free play and in lots of language rich conversation with each other and the adults in the room.

… I am not cut out to write a proper book review and I am just going to get to the point of why I am writing this and why I think I bother with this blog at all.  This disconnect in early learning is massive and it is not going to properly be covered until current educators take a real part – in ways big and small – in standing up for what we want to see.  Politicians, consultants, researchers and non-profit experts are not the ones with the kids everyday.  We are and we have to take some responsibility for our field.  Yes this involves real risk and it seems hard because we have so little power over the way our rooms our run.  We need to start looking at why we don’t have any power and ways we can look to build some together.  It can be small as me politely and successfully arguing with my room lead that yes, our children should be able to go up the slide.  It can be more collective as teachers in Chicago organizing to give their students more play in the school day.   Here in the UK many settings are successfully implementing In the Moment Planning and transforming their settings.  Those of us not lucky enough to find work at these places need to push things forward regardless.

Working in early learning was a job I “settled” for 7 years.  It’s only since recently discovering the depth, importance and power of developmentally appropriate practice and play-based settings that this has turned into a real passion for me.  I am going to be part of this field for the rest of my life.  I can’t stand that standards, structure and academics are getting pushed down on younger and younger children.  It’s completely backwards in every sense of the word.  We know it’s wrong, we know we hate taking part in it and we have to figure out ways to have some real say in how we practice our profession.


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