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Is our two-tiered system of early care and education fair?

The two-tiered system of early care and education in the United States, comprised of Head Start on the one hand and then "other" kinds of programs, appears patently unfair. Calling Head Start "compensatory" (Slavin, 1989) seems too positive a term for the reality of the situation. Isn't the real underlying model and rationale for Head Start a deficit model? And isn't deficit thinking, therefore, often reflected in Head Start programs (O'Brien, 1990; Wrigley, 1991)?

Janice Hale, an African American educator, characterizes low socioeconomic status education as "concentration camp education" where children are trained to be inmates; they learn to get in line and walk down the hall and to work with ditto sheets and workbooks. Lee Little Soldier (1992), a Native American, decries as "unfortunate at best" the practice of placing "at-risk" labels on children who come from homes that do not reflect Anglo American middle-class values and whose life experiences have not prepared them for success in conventional schools.

The issue at question here is who defines "at-risk." In this case, as elsewhere in early childhood education, those with power, those who are not "at-risk," are in charge of the defining and the labeling. In this matter, I believe we ought to remember, and reconsider, our forebears. For instance, George Counts in 1932 wrote about the "liberal-minded upper middle class who send their children to the Progressive schools," saying they "... prided themselves on their open-mindedness and tolerance, who favor in a mild sort of way fairly liberal programs of social reconstruction ..." but who

... are rather insensitive to the accepted forms of social injustice ... refuse to see reality in its harsher and more disagreeable forms ... and do not want their children to mix too freely with the children of the poor or of the less fortunate races.

In his compelling book, Blaming the Victim (1971), William Ryan addresses the same concern. He says we tend to look sympathetically at those who have a problem, to separate them out and define them as a special group--a group that is different from the general population. The "different ones" are seen as less competent, less skilled, less knowing. Further, Ryan says that students of social problems tend to avoid dealing with what is really wrong. He writes,

This is particularly true of professionals in welfare, health, and education who, in their laudable haste to do and to help, often draw up a premature equation: problem equals need, and need, in turn, equals the service they happen to have handy....

Jonathon Kozol's Savage Inequalities (1991) makes a similar claim: the middle and upper classes are willing to allow the poor a certain limited access to the goods of society, but are unwilling to make life chances equal by sharing the wealth or providing truly equal opportunities. Kozol cites as proof the glaring discrepancies between schools in poorer neighborhoods and those in more affluent neighborhoods. I contend that our two-tiered early care and education system is just as unequal. Instead of benefiting from a universal system of early care and education, poor and otherwise "at-risk" children receive Head Start (if they are lucky) and the more advantaged children receive in-home care, center-based care, nursery or preschools--whatever their parents can afford.

In a sense, the situation in early care and education is even worse than the "savage inequalities" perpetrated by K-12 public schools. At least a local and state tax base, however inequitable, funds public schooling for children older than 5. In most early care and education situations, however, unless the parent pays or the government subsidizes, the child receives no care or education. At any rate, equality or even equity of opportunities cannot be assumed, never mind the outcomes (for further discussion, see Fine, 1990).

I see a connection between the current narrow view of school "readiness," "the capacity to simultaneously learn and cope with the school environment" (Gesell Institute, 1987, p. 7), and the proliferation of the "at-risk" label. This view of readiness suggests a predetermined set of capabilities that all children must have acquired before entering grade school, thus placing the burden of proof directly on the child--and his/her family. Head Start is predicated on just such thinking.

Rather than viewing children as "at-promise," with each child bringing certain capacities to the learning situation, the Head Start model views the poor and/or special needs child as "at-risk." Wouldn't it be more appropriate to adjust the levels and demands of schooling tasks and experiences to meet the needs of each child? To start where the children are and not where we feel they ought to be? From the "at-promise" perspective, all children are viewed as naturally inquisitive learners in need of well-designed environments and sensitive adults to foster growth and development. With this approach, responsibility is shifted to the school; the child is not penalized for lack of opportunity (Kagan, 1990). I ask the following questions to prompt thought and raise discussion about this troubling issue.

* Why is there no outcry over this separate and unequal care and education for young children? Is it because early care and education are not compulsory? Is it because we do not want to ask how it is that poor children come to be "at-risk" in the first place?

* Are we, by accepting the premise of Head Start, diverting attention away from issues of unequal distribution of money and power, away from the economy, jobs and housing? Are we instead focusing on the individual child and his/her family and "those small-scale interventions which would 'fix' him or her...?" (Fine, 1990). That is, does Head Start serve to replicate the status quo of our two-tiered social system?

* Could it be we are still "blaming the victim" (Ryan, 1971) when we use, and even embrace, a deficit model such as Head Start?

* Do we believe Head Start programs are fine for "them" but not for "us"?

* Are those of us who are middle and upper middle class, primarily European-American educators, in part to blame for not speaking up?

* Finally, is my original premise correct? Is Head Start an "at-risk" model? If it is, is that problematic? If so, is an "at-promise" or universalistic approach to early care and education a feasible alternative?

I hope the answer to the last question is "Yes," for the sake of our children and our world.


Counts, G. S. (1932). Dare the schools build a new social order? Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Fine, M. (1990). Making controversy: Who's at-risk? Journal of Urban and Cultural Studies, 1(1), 55-68.

Gesell Institute. (1987). The Gesell Institute responds. Young Children, 42(2),


Kagan, S. L. (1990). Readiness 2000: Rethinking rhetoric and responsibility. Phi Delta Kappa, 72, 272-279.

Kozol, J. (1991). Savage inequalities: Children in America's schools. New York: Crown Publishers.

Little Soldier, L. (1992). Working with Native American children. Young Children, 47(6), 15-21.

O'Brien, L. M. (1990). Teacher values and classroom culture: A case study of a rural Head Start program. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Pennsylvania State University, University Park.

Ryan, W. (1971). Blaming the victim. New York: Pantheon Books.

Slavin, R. E. (1989, March). Disadvantaged vs. at-risk: Does the difference matter in practice? Paper presented at the annual convention of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, CA.

Wrigley, J. (1991). Different care for different kids: Social class and child care policy. In L. Weis (Ed.), Critical perspectives on early childhood education. Albany, NY: State University of New York.

Leigh M. O'Brien is Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education, Nazareth College of Rochester, Rochester, New York.
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Author:O'Brien, Leigh M.
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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