The Right of All Children to Quality Education
By Jeanne Goldhaber
Jeanne Goldhaber, associate professor emerita, taught in the Early Childhood PreK-3 Teacher Preparation Program and worked with the children, educators, and families of the Campus Children’s Center at the University of Vermont for 25 years. She has been a NAREA board member since 2009 and is a consulting editor for Innovations in Early Education: The International Reggio Exchange.
As a NAREA board member (I’m divulging this identity with the goal of full transparency), I’ve attended several NAREA sponsored events this year: a winter conference in Arizona, a summer conference in Hawaii, and a NAEYC pre-conference session in Washington, DC. Each event reflected very different experiences and, most significantly, different contexts. These contexts included Head Start centers, early childhood programs and schools that serve both legal and illegal immigrants, and formally “failing” public schools.
In Arizona and Hawaii, each school and program opened its doors (and I would say hearts) to conference participants. Presenters at the NAEYC conference shared images of their contexts with visible pride. All reported their struggles and successes. Each was at a different place in her experience; all were juggling multiple balls related to funding, teacher development and retention, families in stress, etc.
You get the picture, right? These are contexts that reflect the experience of so many teachers and families in the U.S. that represent a broad demographic spectrum. And yet a stereotype continues, a stereotype that presupposes that those of us who are inspired by the dedication and accomplishments of the community of Reggio Emilia represent an elite subculture of early childhood programs and schools.
I wonder about this assumption. Is it because the schools of Reggio Emilia are beautiful? Can we only envision children of privilege in such surroundings? It is certainly true the infant-toddler centers and preschools in Reggio Emilia are beautiful. But how is their “beauty” actualized? Some are old villas that have been jerry-rigged to accommodate groups of young children; others were built after World War II; still others were built in the last decade. All of them are filled with sunshine and the sounds of children at play. They are clean and organized, with carefully selected and arranged furniture and materials. On the walls are panels that celebrate the children’s competence as members of a learning community—a community of teachers and children that relishes challenge and that engages in extraordinary feats of creativity and problem solving.
Families, too, are in evidence in the postings of committee minutes and organized events. If one cares to look for it, information is also available regarding enrollment policies, such as priorities given to single parent families or families with children with special rights (which, translated to U.S. parlance, means “children with special needs”).
Certainly we can offer learning environments like this to all children. They do not require expensive purchases from catalogues. Instead, they require an “aesthetic” that values clarity, order, inclusion, and communication. They rely on open-ended materials rather than costly merchandise that limits rather than invites experimentation. They document both children’s and families’ engagement in the life of the school. None of these ingredients require fat budgets. In fact, I have visited programs in church basements, traditional public school classrooms, and farmhouses that serve low-income communities on budgets that are extremely modest. And yet these environments reflect lessons learned about the environment as the “third teacher” from the educators of Reggio Emilia.
I think we can remedy the perspective that a Reggio-inspired early childhood program must be very costly to set up and equip. But I worry that the stereotype that these programs are for children from privileged families is based on a more fundamental bias. I worry that this stereotype implies the belief that only children whose families can afford preschool or school tuition fees that rival tuition costs of some American colleges can benefit from the kind of rich curriculum that we observe in Reggio Emilia. I find this supposition truly offensive. It reflects a bias that children who do not have the resources of privilege require a different sort of educational experience—one that assumes children whose zip codes do not reflect a middle or upper SES neighborhood are best educated with a heavy dose of direct instruction that focuses on traditional academic content. And yet we know that young children learn best in classrooms where children are protagonists of their own learning, where play and interaction characterize their experience, and where teachers recognize and value each child as an individual with competence and potential. (Bredekamp, Knuth, Kunesh, & Shulman, 1992) Indeed, in the article “The Assessment of Young Children Through the Lens of Universal Design for Learning (UDL),” authors Elizabeth Dalton and Susan Trostle Brand discuss three principles that are core to the provision of a curriculum that addresses diverse learners—all learners (Dalton & Brand, 2012, p. 2). They are multiple means of representation, of action and expression, and of engagement. Those familiar with the infant-toddler centers and preschools of Reggio Emilia will recognize these principles in the experiences of the children who attend them.
There is also a hint of irony in the belief that the pedagogical approach of Reggio Emilia is for the privileged. While it is true that the city of Reggio Emilia has enjoyed a healthy economy (although it is now struggling with the recent Italian financial downturn), it is also true that the community made a commitment to its young children at a time when it was recovering from the ravages and destruction of war. Images from the early schools of Reggio Emilia show families struggling to survive but determined to build a future for their children. In the last ten years, I’ve also observed changes in the demographics of the community of Reggio Emilia, from a nearly homogeneous profile to one that is now highly diverse and reflects a broad range of cultural, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity. Priority is still given to single families, families with children with special rights, and now, to families that have recently immigrated to Italy.
So how can we challenge the image of programs inspired by the infant-toddler centers and preschools of Reggio Emilia as outposts for privileged children and families? Put another way, how can we advocate for rich learning experiences for all children, including those whose families have limited resources? I’d like to think that the voices of programs like those in Arizona, Hawaii, and Washington, DC are the beginning, and that with time, we’ll hear from more and more programs like them.
Elizabeth M. Dalton, E. M., & Brand, S.T. (2012). The assessment of young
children through the lens of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).
Forum on Public Policy, 1, 2. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ979436.pdf
Bredekamp, S., Knuth, R.A., Kunesh, L.G., & Shulman, D.D. (1992). What
does research say about early childhood education? North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL). Retrieved from http://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/tta-system/teaching/eecd/curriculum/planning/edudev_art_00421_081806.html
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