Past, Present, and Future: What We Can Learn from the History of Preschool Education

By Beatty, Barbara | The American Prospect, November 2004 | Go to article overview
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Past, Present, and Future: What We Can Learn from the History of Preschool Education

Beatty, Barbara, The American Prospect

THE MOVEMENT TO UNIVERsalize preschool education is not new. Americans have been attempting to get public support for educating our youngest children for more than 150 years. Why has it taken so long? What are the obstacles? And what do past successes suggest about promising strategies for the future?

In 1830, a petition to formally incorporate "infant schools" into the Boston Public Schools was rejected by the Primary School Committee. Opposing it, primary-school teachers said infant-school graduates were difficult to manage, while a mental-health specialist and child-rearing advice-givers argued that excessive early stimulation was damaging to children. Proponents, the women of the Infant School Society of Boston, complained that men had been insufficiently supportive of their plan.

Despite this setback, as historian Maris Vinovskis documents, many 3 and 4-year-olds in Massachusetts were attending public schools until the mid-19th century, toddling along after their older siblings, if teachers didn't protest. Their numbers declined as urban schools became more age-graded and academically standardized, and as ideology about the role of mothers and the sanctity of the private family became widespread.

When Elizabeth Peabody started the nation's first English-speaking public kindergarten in Boston in 1860, she overcame resistance by emphasizing that German kindergarten founder Friedrich Froebel's felicitous sounding "children's garden" was an appropriate place for young children, not a school. The effort lasted only a year, however, because the superintendent thought it too costly. Nearly 30 years later, the Boston Public Schools incorporated privately funded "charity" kindergartens. But as with most urban kindergartens, they were seen primarily as programs for the children of the poor.

With the goal of bringing public kindergartens to "all the nation's children," Bessie Locke founded the National Kindergarten Association (NKA) in New York City in 1909. Not a professional educator, Locke avoided the internecine conflicts within the kindergarten movement and enlisted prominent businessmen, college presidents, and education reformers like John Dewey. Taking its case to Washington, the NKA persuaded the commissioner of education to let the organization establish and fund a Kindergarten Bureau within the U.S. Bureau of Education. But when Locke's attempts to get a kindergarten bill through Congress failed, she refocused her efforts at the state level, rallying local parent-teacher organizations, church groups, and governor's wives, and waging media campaigns. Money was always an obstacle, especially in rural areas and in the South, as were state and local politics. In spite of these difficulties, Locke's efforts over four decades contributed to a 300-percent increase in the number of children nationwide attending public and private kindergartens.

IT TOOK NATIONAL EMERGENCIES to spur federal action for younger children. The Works Progress Administration sponsored Emergency Nursery Schools for 3- and 4-year-olds during the Depression, primarily as a job program for adults. Psychologists and nursery educators hoped that the public schools, where many of the programs were located, would adopt them. But as in Boston a century earlier, few public-school systems were hospitable to the idea. With the onset of World War II, new federal money was available for Children's Centers, some of which were open around the clock to care for Rosie the Riveter's kids. Once again, preschool educators hoped the programs would become permanent, but President Truman cut funding six months after the war ended.

Another perceived national emergency, the war on poverty, and new psychological research on the benefits of early education led to the founding of Head Start in 1965. As former Director Ed Zigler recounts, Head Start survived inflated expectations about raising IQ scores and resistance from some southern states over integration to become an iconic community-action program.

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Past, Present, and Future: What We Can Learn from the History of Preschool Education


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