Our Proud Heritage: Lessons for Today The Ypsilanti Perry Preschool, Part II
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Louise Derman-Sparks and Evelyn Moore’s contribution to our understanding of the Ypsilanti Perry Preschool program brings to mind a century of US early childhood education history. These perceptive preschool educators incorporated intentional teaching, family–teacher relationships, flexible curriculum, and belief in children’s empowerment into the Perry Preschool. We thank you, Louise and Evelyn, for the personal recounting. We are honored to present “Lessons for Today: The Ypsilanti Perry Preschool, Part 2.”
—Edna Runnels Ranck and Charlotte Anderson, Editors, Our Proud Heritage
Here is Part 2 of our story as long-ago teachers (from 1962 to 1965) in the Ypsilanti Perry Preschool. The children in this program were the subjects of the influential HighScope longitudinal study, which identified significant, positive school and life outcomes and became a key piece of evidence for the importance of early childhood education. Part 1 of the column describes the Perry Preschool program and pedagogy (see Young Children, September 2016). In this issue, we reflect about factors shaping the study’s positive long-term outcomes and its lessons for today.
Given the complexity of human development and learning, it is unlikely that any one element of the Perry Preschool produced the program’s results. Indeed, presuming that a single factor explains the whole runs the risk of applying simplistic solutions to complex problems. We choose to highlight and explore the following factors: (1) intentional and professional teachers, (2) teacher attitudes, (3) teacher–child relationships, (4) family–teacher relationships and community support, (5) curriculum and finances, and (6) children’s resilience and empowerment.
Intentional, professional teachers
Perry Preschool teachers worked as professionals, practicing what the early childhood education field now calls intentional teaching. We were free to generate learning experiences by purposefully taking into account the children’s individual developmental trajectories and the context of their lives, within the mission of the program. We were able to invent new activities while incorporating ideas from existing curricula. Intentional, professional teachers improve the quality of their work by being members of a community of learners, as the Perry Preschool teachers were. We met every Friday afternoon to assess and analyze the past week and plan for the following week. Drawing from several curriculum approaches, we worked to balance the use of child- and teacher-directed learning experiences. Finally, the Perry Preschool teachers benefited from high-quality preservice preparation and regular in-service learning opportunities—prerequisites for being an intentional, professional educator. In effect, we engaged in several practices that the current early childhood education field now believes are vital to a high-quality program.
Respecting teachers as professionals rather than treating them like technicians is crucial for children’s learning in all early childhood care and education programs, including in the preschools and pre-K programs serving children living in poverty. Working as a technician and following an inflexible approach is diametrically the opposite of being an intentional, professional teacher. Technicians must rigidly implement a one-size-fits-all, predetermined curriculum and pedagogy they do not adapt, regardless of the children, families, and communities they serve. Early childhood programs shortchange children when teachers are expected to follow a scripted curriculum. It is essential that the freedom and support the Perry Preschool teachers enjoyed as professionals be more widely known and acknowledged.
Since teaching in the Perry Preschool, we each have had 50 years of experience in education—Evelyn as founder and longtime executive director of the National Black Child Development Institute, and Louise as author, teacher of, and consultant on anti-bias education with children and adults. These years of experience taught us that the best curriculum practices, while essential, are not the whole story. When a teacher’s behavior reflects unexamined prejudices, misconceptions, or ignorance toward an aspect of a child’s or family’s, multiple identities, it undermines and subverts best practices. Harmful attitudes may relate to a child’s economic class, racial identity, ethnicity, culture, religion, language, gender, family structure, sexual orientation, or ability. For example, current research about the harmful effects of early childhood teachers’ biased attitudes and behavior toward African American boys makes clear that unexamined attitudes still profoundly influence children’s outcomes (Barbarin & Crawford 2006; Barbarin 2010).
During our years at the Perry Preschool, we respected families’ high aspirations for their children and looked for family strengths as a base for building relationships with them. We did not accept or act on the cultural deprivation beliefs held by many in the educational community during that time. We worked with great commitment to the children, their families, and the preschool’s mission. We saw our work as much more than a job. Accordingly, it is vital also to elevate the role teacher attitudes played in the success of the Perry Preschool when discussing or writing about the study.
Relationships between teachers and children
The primary role of affirmative relationships between young children and their teachers has long been a central premise of early childhood care and education. Asa Hilliard, one of the pioneering activist leaders concerned about African American children thriving in the educational system, always emphasized the centrality of nurturing and high expectations in the teacher–child relationship. And, as Jack P. Shonkoff, chair of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, a collaboration of leaders in neuroscience, psychology, pediatrics, and economics, states, “The active ingredient in the environment that’s having an influence on development is the quality of the relationships that children have with the important people in their lives. That’s what it’s all about” (n.d., 1).
During our time at Perry Preschool, the teachers worked hard to create strong nurturing and affirming relationships with each child. We treated each child as a competent, unique person with her own dynamics and life history, and as an important member of the class. We were consistent in our high expectations for the children’s learning and behavior, and lovingly firm in keeping them to those goals. We also danced with the children from time to time! No one ever considered suspending or expelling a child. Several dynamics supported our being able to build affirming relationships, all of which the early childhood education field still considers elements of high-quality programs. These include children staying with the same teachers for two years, minimal teacher turnover, ideal teacher–child ratios, and weekly teacher home visits.
In addition to relationships with the children, we hypothesize that the teacher’s relationships with the families and community is also at the heart of the longitudinal outcomes of the children from Perry Preschool. For most of the families, the teacher’s affirmation of their child’s intelligence and right to good education was a first from a representative of the educational system. So, too, was the respect of the teachers for the parents’ childrearing abilities and their knowledge of their child.
As we discussed in Part 1 of this column, teachers did not consider or treat parents as culturally deprived or inferior to themselves. We saw our role with families as promoting their strengths while also offering them new ideas about ways to promote their children’s cognitive development and academic skills. We also stressed the children’s rights and capacities to be successful at school, and we shared strategies with families for being advocates for their own children. Hopefully, these experiences served as a model for further conversations with their children’s subsequent teachers.
Since, for the most part, teacher–family relationships developed over two years, we had time to establish trusting, in-depth communication on a range of topics. Those opportunities to talk with families about their children’s cognitive and social development let us engage together in problem solving about the children’s needs—and sometimes the families’ needs. Some teachers, including the two of us, shared strategies with families for navigating the school system, so parents could advocate for their children.
Along with our intensive work with families, some of the teachers—again, including us—put effort into building positive relationships with the Perry School principal, the director of the community center, and the Perry Teachers Union representative. All three were respected, longtime members of the Ypsilanti African American community—and played a major role in the community’s acceptance of the Perry Preschool program and teachers. We also attended community events—in some cases sad ones, such as a funeral for a child killed in a house fire.
Curriculum and finances
Several curriculum strategies that are still considered best practices were part of the Perry Preschool teachers’ pedagogical arsenal. These include richly providing for children’s active learning, nurturing dramatic play, offering a balance of child- and teacher-directed activities, and paying attention to the inseparable connection between social-emotional and cognitive development.
In the first three years, we used a variety of teaching methods. Some came from traditional early childhood education, such as teaching units that linked several learning experiences over a week or two. Some came from our readings and in-service programs—for example, ways to scaffold and enrich children’s dramatic play. Teachers’ assessments of children’s needs during our weekly meetings also led to new curriculum ideas and materials. In spring 1965, exploration of the educational implications of Piagetian theory regarding children’s construction of knowledge began to appear. In years four and five of the preschool program, pedagogy based on an early interpretation of Piagetian theory became the primary curriculum framework.
We provided frequent field trips in the community and to the larger world beyond the children’s segregated neighborhood. These trips often sparked specific curriculum units. They were also times to have wonderful conversations with the children while driving to and from field trip sites. Interestingly, a recent play by the prizewinning playwright Anna Deavere Smith (2015) included a piece from a civil rights activist about the importance to her development of childhood bus trips with her mother around their city. Unfortunately, field trips and community exploration are now in danger of disappearing in many early childhood programs. (Our practice of driving the children in our own cars is no longer acceptable, but very few early childhood education programs have resources for other ways to take field trips.) We can only speculate about how important the field trips were to the development of the Perry Preschool children.
The crucial issue of financing high-quality early childhood programs is our final point about curriculum. Although not usually mentioned, it is important to know that the Ypsilanti Perry Preschool received ample funding. Money is not everything, but it is a necessary component of high-quality early childhood care and education. Without sufficient budgets, programs cannot purchase good and sufficient materials, teachers with poverty-level salaries and little or no benefits often need to look for other employment, and too many children end up warehoused in inadequate buildings. Cheap high-quality early childhood education is an oxymoron! No matter how good the teachers or the curriculum, programs cannot fully implement what they know how to do if they do not have the financial resources to do so.
Resilience, bias, and empowerment
If all children are truly to have equal opportunities to thrive in school and life, then they must develop resilience and a sense of empowerment, as well as skills to navigate successfully in the larger society beyond their communities. So, too, must their families. This is especially vital for children who live in families that experience major societal obstacles, such as poverty, prejudice, and discrimination, all of which have the potential to undermine healthful social-emotional and cognitive development.
The Perry Preschool teachers’ strong commitment to the children, and to our educational principles, reflects much of what we now know about promoting children’s resilience and resistance to prejudice, discrimination, and poverty (e.g., Tatum 2003; Derman-Sparks & Edwards 2010). As Evelyn insists, high-quality programs for African American and other children of color must incorporate factors that ensure esteem and respect for oneself and one’s heritage. The Perry Preschool teachers’ respectful relationships with families added another dimension to our goal that the children believe in themselves as intelligent, creative people who matter. Perhaps, in the end, it was our commitment to nurturing the children’s and families’ belief in themselves and their capacity to be competent and empowered in the world, coupled with fostering the emotional and cognitive skills to do so, that most mattered.
High-quality early childhood care and education programs equitably serving children of all backgrounds who live in poverty remain an enormous, immediate need in our country. In spite of some societal progress since the Perry Preschool years, racism and poverty are still alive and active. Moreover, if we want to build education systems for young children that truly work for all, it is imperative to include teachers’ and families’ voices in the construction of educational knowledge, policies, and practice. We hope our story will contribute to deepening this vital work. Lastly, it is essential to acknowledge that the Perry Preschool work did not exist in a vacuum, but rather in the midst of a nationwide movement to make our country’s institutions live up to the American promise of equality for all. Early childhood education makes an important contribution to this effort, but it cannot make societal changes all by itself.
We end with a note of appreciation for the chance to tell our story about our Ypsilanti Perry Preschool teaching experiences. Working on this column also reminded us how much the values and commitment we brought to our Perry Preschool teaching laid the foundation for our subsequent careers. And we return to the hope expressed at the beginning of our two-part column—that our story sparks new and expanded conversations about the meaning of the Ypsilanti Perry Preschool program for the work of early childhood care and education today. Our society needs to get it right!
Editors’ Note: We would like to clarify information about the Perry Preschool project found in the article “Two Teachers Look Back: The Ypsilanti Perry Preschool, Part I,” by Louise Derman Sparks and Evelyn Moore, in the September 2016 issue of Young Children. From 1962 to 1967, at ages 3 and 4, African- American students were randomly divided into a group that received a high-quality preschool program—the Perry Preschool— based on a participatory learning approach and a comparison group that received no preschool program.
In 1970, David Weikart left the Ypsilanti (Michigan) School System to establish the HighScope Educational Research Foundation, where he continued his work on the preschool approach he and his colleagues developed during the Perry Preschool project. Weikart died in 2003. In the HighScope Educational Research Foundation study’s most recent phase, 97 percent of the study participants still living were interviewed at age 40.
NAEYC gratefully acknowledges the Hymen Milgrom Supporting Organization and Barbara Bowman for supporting the development of this article.
Barbarin, O.A. 2010. “Halting African American Boys’ Progression From Pre-K to Prison: What Families, Schools, and Communities Can Do!” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 80 (1): 81–88
Barbarin, O.A., & G. Crawford. 2006. “Acknowledging and Reducing Stigmatization of African American Boys.” Young Children 61 (6): 79–86.
Deavere-Smith, A. 2015. Never Givin’ Up. (Performed April 15–26, 2015, at The Broad Stage, Santa Monica, California.)
Derman-Sparks, L., & J.O. Edwards. 2010. Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Shonkoff, J.P. N.d. “The Neuroscience of Nurturing Neurons.” Interview by David Boulton, Children of the Code Project. www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/shonkoff.htm.
Tatum, B.D. 2003. “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” and Other Conversations About Race. Rev. ed. New York: Basic Books.
Photographs: 1, © Bob Ebbesen; 2, © iStock
Louise Derman-Sparks, MA, worked for more than 50 years as a preschool teacher, child care center director, college teacher, author, consultant, and social justice activist. Her published work includes several books and numerous articles. Now retired from teaching, she is active with the Social Justice Committee of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center.
Evelyn K. Moore was a special education teacher when she learned of the innovative Perry Preschool during the 1960s. After teaching at Perry Preschool, Moore cofounded the National Black Child Development Institute in 1970. The author of Paths to African American Leadership Positions in Early Childhood Education, Moore represented her field on numerous fronts, including the National Education Goals Panel and the Act for Better Child Care Services. firstname.lastname@example.org