Putting Visions of Social Justice Education into Practice

Challenges and Contested Ground in Early Childhood Education

by Louise Derman-Sparks


Children's Rights poster is available from Syracuse Cultural Workers.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it’s the presence of justice.” Consistent with that perspective, the impetus for anti-bias education work is rooted in a desire to build just early childhood programs for all children. Early childhood education plays a part in the creation of socially just, culturally inclusive societies where all families are able to raise their children in the context of who they are and where all families have the resources to raise children who can truly thrive.

Early childhood education is a powerful bridge between the family and the larger society; however, this connection is not automatically a positive one. Why and how the bridge is constructed matters. Our societies are complex—exhibiting and promoting strong, contradictory themes regarding how we treat human beings. Early childhood programs can be grounded in the aspirations and rights articulated in the Declaration of the Rights of the Children. Or they can be created to ready children to conform to society as it is, with all of its existing racial, class, and gender power dynamics.

In order to unleash the power of early childhood education to help reduce racial and ethnic divisions and build peaceable communities, we must overcome major challenges. While children are at the heart of our work, they are not the only key element. Teachers and parents, infrastructures of early childhood education, and larger economic and social-political dynamics in our societies are all “contested ground” for the anti-bias education community. 

Contested grounds are those places where we can and must work to create change. By identifying and analyzing obstacles, we can better prepare ourselves to build impactful, anti-bias early childhood education programs. In this piece, I explore a few key contested-ground issues. In the second piece, “Change Strategies,” I suggest ways for us to engage in these contested grounds—and in so doing, put anti-bias, culturally inclusive visions into practice in early childhood education.


Contested Ground One: Teacher Preparation and Practice

Teachers are the primary agents of quality anti-bias education. While diverse, accurate learning materials and curriculums are necessary, it is teachers who are central to effective early childhood programs. Disturbingly, however, a fundamental contradiction undermines teachers’ desires to practice quality anti-bias education. From their earliest years, depending on their various social identities (gender, race, culture, economic class, and sexual orientation), people’s interactions with societal systems and actors (e.g., educational institutions, courts and the police, the job market, health care institutions) carry economic, social, and cultural advantages or disadvantages, which influence their ideas and perspectives about the world and contribute to shaping who they are. Whether or not we like it, all of us from an early age, learn the misinformation and prejudices of our society to one degree or another, and the dynamics of internalized privilege and internalized oppression (Cross, 1991, Derman-Sparks & Edwards, 2010, Derman-Sparks & Ramsey, (2011), Tatum, 2003, Wijeyesinghe, C. & J. Jackson, 2012). Nevertheless, without the necessary preparation to do so, educators are expected to teach children not to absorb the same beliefs, attitudes and behaviors adults have been absorbing since their own childhood.

Teachers’ lack of self-awareness about the impact of socialization in a society where racial, class, gender, sexual orientation, and other forms of systemic advantage or disadvantage remain operative does serious damage to our young people. One disturbing example is the evidence of “unintentional “racial bias on display in pre-K –programs, as revealed in a recent large-scale study of pre-K programs (Barbarian & Crawford, 2006). Trained observers documented case after case in which early childhood teachers used stigmatizing practices directed at African American boys, including racially disparate punishment and rewards, greater use of isolation and exclusion with some children, and even open expressions of hostility toward certain children. Nevertheless, the teachers exhibiting these racially-biased behaviors claimed that they were “color-blind”, insisting that this meant that they did not ‘see’ racial differences or treat children differently because of them. However, as the Barbarian & Crawford study illuminates, claiming not to ‘see’ race, plays into the dynamics of racism by denying the social-political construction of race and radicalized identity that continues to have a powerful influence in how we think of ourselves and interact with others.

Practicing anti-bias education requires that teachers uncover, examine, and undo the impact that the dynamics of internalized privilege and oppression and learned prejudices have had on them. Consciousness-raising preparation courses for new teachers and ongoing in-service education with practicing teachers are necessary. This is happening in some two- and four-year teacher preparation programs, as well as in early childhood programs around the country. But it remains an important contested ground where those of us who want to see the vision of anti-bias, culturally inclusive education transmitted into practice must be active.


Contested Ground Two: The Canon of Early Childhood Education

Canon: refers to general laws, rules, principles, or criteria by which something is judged and accepted as being accurate and authoritative. (Concise Oxford American Dictionary, 2006)

Early childhood care and education programs exist within the larger context of society. Inevitably, they are deeply influenced by the power dynamics of a given society’s various systems, be they economic, social, political, cultural, or ideological.

Dominant-culture thinking continues to dominate much of Early Childhood Education (ECE) thinking and practices in the United States. Significantly, the criteria of “developmentally appropriate practices” (DAP) reflects this influence. DAP is at the heart of beliefs about what constitutes quality in early childhood education; it is the content into which teachers of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds are socialized. Consequently, even when teachers do understand the dominant culture’s influence on the ECE canon and how a home culture’s child-rearing or language differs from that dominant culture, their ECE training tells them to place a priority on the ECE canon above more appropriate practices.

The core premise of DAP, a fundamental building block of the ECE cannon, is that children go through several stages of cognitive and social-emotional development, which must be understood and respected in order to provide quality early childhood education. Many cultures accept this basic idea; however, dominant culture thinking exerts particular influence in the specific criteria for DAP. Advocates of culturally inclusive, anti-bias education contend that many of the tenets of DAP are grounded in our country’s dominant culture (Western, affluent, Anglo-European) and some do not match what are considered “normal development” and “best practices” across all ethnic/cultural lines. Thus, children who do not come from dominant culture families are judged by criteria that contradict what they experience at home, creating cultural discontinuity and bias. Since home culture is fundamental to how children are socialized and how they learn, it must be taken into account in the criteria for quality education if children are to thrive.

The influence of dominant-culture thinking in the traditional ECE canon reveals itself in a number of ways. One example is the emphasis on young children’s early individual independence in their relationships and learning style. This contrasts with the interdependency that is a major element of several other cultures in within our country that prioritize creating a balance between individualism and cooperation, that is, learning cooperatively, rather than competitively, with peers. In addition, ECE curriculums focus on dominant culture holidays and often exclude the traditions of many of the families whom early childhood programs now serve. A third example of the dominant culture’s effects on ECE thinking and practices arises in the debate over the approach to children whose home language is not English. On one side are educators who believe that young children should be in programs that quickly move them into English and do not incorporate other home languages. On the other side of the debate are educators who argue that this early undermining of home language harms children’s cognitive development and connections to their families, and thus, young children need to continue developing in their home language while also learning English. These educators base their recommendations on research that shows the benefits of becoming bilingual and the dangers of too quickly losing home language.

Educators in the United States and several other countries are working to change ECE theory and practice to reflect the impact of diverse home cultures on children’s development. In the United States we took an important step forward when the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) acknowledged in the most recent version of DAP, after many years of advocacy from members of the ECE community, that culture and prejudice in society both play a role in children’s development (see right column for statement from “Developmentally Appropriate Practice"). Putting this knowledge into practice, however, and identifying the specific influences of sociocultural contexts in children’s development continue to be much-contested arenas within policy and ECE teacher preparation in which advocates for anti-bias, culturally inclusive education must engage.


Contested Ground Three: Political Opposition and Economic Climate

Currently, we are seeing a disturbing rise in racial hate groups and hate crimes. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has tracked hate groups for the past 40 years, reports, “Taken together, the three strands of the radical right—the hate-mongers, the atavists and the antigovernment zealots—increased from 1,753 groups in 2009 to 2,145 in 2010, a 22% rise” (Potok, 2011). We are also experiencing a disturbing and parallel rise in legislation that is anti-people of color, anti-immigrant, and anti-women. Recent laws in several states attempt to make voting more difficult for people of color, the poor, the young, students, and the elderly, undoing much of the hard work and gains of the civil rights movements of the past 40 years. 

This political climate has led to organized political opposition that specifically targets multicultural, anti-bias social justice education—based on the misrepresentation of its goals and content. For the Right, “social justice education” amounts to nothing more than “a code word for anti-Americanism, because it means the United States is an unjust and oppressive society. . . . [It] concentrates on past mistakes in U.S. history rather than on our many remarkable accomplishments and opportunities and is given the highfalutin label ‘critical pedagogy’” (Schlafly,2009). 

Several states have ended bilingual education in public schools, on the false claim that it intentionally does not teach children English, ignoring the fact that the “bi” in “bilingual” means two. Other legislation forbids public schools to offer classes designed to teach about the history and cultures of African American, Latino, and Native American people. Texas, the largest single purchaser of textbooks in the United States, passed legislation banning textbooks that provide a multifaceted view of American history. Phyllis Schlafly, a founder of the Eagle Forum, one of the oldest Far Right organizations, writes of the decrees from the Texas State Board of Education: “Schoolchildren will no longer be misled into believing that capitalism and the free market are dirty words and that America has an unjust economic system. Instead, they will learn how the free-enterprise system gave our nation and the world so much that is good for so many people.” She also points out that “publishers can hardly afford to print different versions for other states, so Texas curriculum standards have nationwide influence” (Schlafly, 2010).

The economic challenges faced by early childhood education, along with public schools, also undermine teachers’ abilities to engage in anti-bias education in various ways. For example, inadequate wages, lack of benefits, and low societal respect for the profession make high teacher turnover a regular part of early childhood education programs; it is not uncommon for half of the staff of an ECE program to leave at the end of a school year for economic reasons. Deep bonds and consistent relationships with children; ongoing, integrated curriculum; and strong family-school and inter-staff relationships are all placed at risk when staff come and go because they cannot afford to stay or because underfunded schools cannot afford to keep them on the payroll.

Until all children are growing up without the barriers of prejudice, discrimination, poverty, and war, and until valuing each individual and our collective diversity is an organic part of education, we must keep faith in the possibility of positive change—in ourselves, in others, in our programs. As activists we must find ways of sustaining ourselves through strong networks for the long-term commitment these goals require. And we must work with others to make changes in our education programs and in our society’s systems to ensure that all children, everywhere, will have what they need to wholly thrive.

Step by step the longest
march can be won, can be won
Many stones can form an
arch, singly none, singly none.

—Labor Song

This article adapted from a keynote speech to an international early childhood education conference, “Building Peaceable Communities: The Power of Early Childhood,” May 20, 2011. Sponsored by Una: The Global Learning Initiative on Children and Ethnic Diversity.


Related Pages

Change Strategies for Putting Our Visions into Practice: Challenges and Contested Ground

References for Putting Our Visions into Practice: Challenges and Contested Ground

Resources for Putting Our Visions into Practice: Challenges and Contested Ground


Louise Derman-Sparks is an internationally respected anti-bias educator. Author (with the ABC Task Force) of Anti-Bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children, the original edition of the current volume, she has coauthored additional books with Dr. Carol Brunson Day and Dr. Patricia Ramsey. Derman-Sparks and Olsen Edwards (along with Ramsey) have also coauthored What If All the Kids Are White? She speaks throughout the United States and abroad. Louise has a lifelong commitment to building a more just society for all people. Her children Douglass and Holly, now grown, were her inspiration. A Pacific Oaks College faculty member for 33 years--when its mission and pedagogy reflected anti-bias education principles--Louise is retired. She served on the NAEYC Governing Board during 1998-2001.





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