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OPINION: How to tell if early learning provides a level playing field

A closer look at developmentally appropriate practices

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Lately, there’s been a great deal of talk in the early learning community about equitable practices in early learning settings.

For instance, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) recently released a draft position statement on equity that sought to outline “equitable learning opportunities that help children achieve their full potential as engaged learners and valued members of society.” And NAEYC isn’t the only educational organization having reinvigorated conversations around equity. The conversation often focuses on the workforce, cultural relevance and bias.

Certainly, these are all central components of the larger conversation on equity in education.

Getting less attention: The equity concerns surrounding the practices central to shaping interactions between children and adults in early learning classrooms.

For a field that is defined by practices that are developmentally appropriate, it’s worth asking if developmentally appropriate practices are equitable.

To answer this question, it’s important to note first that developmentally appropriate practices (DAP) require knowing about child development and learning, knowing what’s individually appropriate and knowing what’s culturally important.

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Often, these practices are associated with particular teaching approaches, such as integrating guided play in classrooms and structuring experiences for children in a variety of centers or interest areas (e.g., the block and discovery areas). However, a claim I have heard throughout my career, even as a kindergarten teacher who organized interest areas in a large urban school district in New Jersey, is that these practices are not appropriate for children in high-poverty areas (especially African-American and Hispanic children), as these children start kindergarten significantly behind their white peers academically.

At this point, the achievement and opportunity gaps that children start school with are well-documented. The kindergarten readiness gap shows that African-American and Hispanic children are up to 18 months behind their white peers in literacy and math by the time they enter kindergarten. And this gap widens throughout a child’s school experience.

If equity has anything to do with fairness and impartiality, as its dictionary definition would suggest, then we must pay attention to the practices that we know children need to be successful in school and in life. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 “The Future of Jobs” report, which predicts how technology will transform the workplace, the social-emotional and learning skills below are exactly the ones that our children need now and in the future:

  • Creativity
  • People management
  • Coordinating with others
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Judgment and decision-making
  • Service orientation
  • Negotiation skills
  • Cognitive flexibility (creativity, logical reasoning and problem sensitivity)

Perhaps we shouldn’t wait until children are in high school to support these rigorous and challenging concepts intentionally. Again, this is where equity and teaching practices associated with DAP are so important, as there is evidence that students of color consistently receive less challenging instruction and schoolwork than their white and more affluent classmates do.

One area in which this plays out is math, which has been shown to be a predictor of later academic achievement in multiple content areas. Of course, it’s hard to imagine doing any math — let alone designing, collaborating and communicating in the block area for math — without the cognitive flexibility listed above. This reality makes it particularly troubling given research that highlights how young children of color tend to have fewer opportunities with rigorous math. Opportunities are abundant in classrooms that make use of block, discovery and other interest areas, which are central to DAP because they reflect ways to structure the classroom environment as well as teaching strategies most representative of how we know that children learn and develop.

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Perhaps this lack of opportunity with rigorous math shouldn’t be a surprise, as recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that 40 percent of fourth-graders performed at or above a proficienct level, with just 26 percent of Hispanic students and 19 percent of African-American children performing proficiently.

These data suggest that if educators are concerned with equitable outcomes, then we should pay more attention to practices that are developmentally appropriate, not less.

As the discussion around equity develops, let’s be sure to include the experiences that we know children need now and in the future. As educators driving conversations around equity, we must ensure that rigorous and appropriate practices stay at the forefront for all children, as all children ought to have the freedom to tinker, test, experiment and play with ideas. That is the fair and equitable thing to do.

This story about equity in early learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

A former kindergarten teacher, Vincent J. Costanza is the current superintendent in residence at Teaching Strategies. He previously served as director of the New Jersey Office of Primary Education and of the Statewide Early Learning Challenge Grant.

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Vincent J. Costanza

A former kindergarten teacher, Vincent J. Costanza, Ed.D. is the current superintendent in residence at Teaching Strategies. He previously served as director of the New… See Archive

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