Academic journal article Childhood Education

A Universal Early Childhood Education System

Academic journal article Childhood Education

A Universal Early Childhood Education System

Article excerpt

Historically, the field of early childhood education (ECE) in the United States has struggled, and continues to struggle, for political positioning. While studies continue to demonstrate ECE's effectiveness in preparing students for success in later life (e.g., Schweinhart et al., 2005), politicians and the public appear unwilling to implement or advocate for a universal early childhood education system (Washington, 2004). I believe that this lack of political will to broaden ECE exists because the field continues to position itself to policymakers as an intervention or investment. Using George Lakoff's (2002, 2004) cognitive theory as a foundation, I argue that we, as early childhood educators, must consider strategies to reframe our positioning of ECE so that we can move our field from the margins to the heart of discussions over education policy.

Early Childhood Education As an Investment

Head Start, whose beginnings in the 1960s coincided with President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, exemplifies why policymakers have primarily constructed ECE as a social intervention program. Studies that questioned the effectiveness of these government-funded ECE programs, such as Westinghouse Learning Corp.'s (1969) evaluation of Head Start, caused researchers to reposition ECE as something more than just an intervention--it was an investment (e.g., Schweinhart & Weikart, 1980). This "return on investment" argument underlies the current push for ECE reform (e.g., Karoly et al., 1998; Lynch, 2004). These studies argue that for every dollar invested in particular types of early childhood programs, the government saves money by not having to spend additional funds on future social and educational services for the children who benefited from the program. This argument shifts the rationale for funding ECE programs slightly. Rather than breaking the cycle of poverty for others, funding programs will save you, the taxpayer, money.

Yet, positioning the field as either an intervention or an investment for particular populations of citizens provides policymakers with numerous opportunities to ignore the call for an increased investment in a more universal system of child care. For instance, the National Institute for Early Education Research's annual report, The State of Preschool, noted that 16 states increased pre-kindergarten spending, while 21 states decreased spending and 12 states do not fund pre-kindergarten programs at all (Barnett, Hustedt, Robin, & Schulman, 2004). Furthermore, Shulman and Blank (2004) found that federal funding for child care assistance through the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) has stagnated, and that assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Family (TANF) block grants has declined from its peak in 2000.

My concern is not that these arguments for high-quality ECE programs are weak or that they fail to produce enough empirical evidence to demonstrate their effectiveness. Rather, the "return on investment" argument positions the field as a choice, one that is dependent upon an elected official's framing of the role of government and the responsibilities of the family. Ultimately, I believe that presenting the field as merely a choice will continue to marginalize ECE within the political landscape of the United States.

Framing the Politics of Early Childhood Education

George Lakoff is a cognitive psychologist who is interested in how individuals think about politics. He investigates how individuals view their environment and makes the case that we see the world through particular frames/frameworks. These frames are mental structures that exist in our unconscious, and they shape the way we see the world (Lakoff, 2004). Lakoff claims that we use conceptual metaphors to make sense of our world and to help us understand our experiences. Ultimately, Lakoff's theory of framing focuses on how people try to create political understanding of the world around them. …

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