As researchers of early childhood development, we focus on generating science that improves outcomes for children of all backgrounds. The Covid-19 pandemic and the nationwide movement for racial justice have only made this work more urgent. Closing opportunity gaps for Black children and other children of color begins with expanding all families’ access to high-quality learning environments, in preschools and beyond.
We can’t achieve this goal without understanding how race and racism influence the communities we study and our own research methods. The early childhood development field, like many others, is striving to embrace research that dismantles racial inequities. To do so, our foundational techniques need to evolve — and that means embracing anti-racist scientific methods.
Anti-racist methods, in general, actively call out the role racism plays in creating and perpetuating inequities, rather than examining racial differences alone. Instead of defining people by the problems they face, these approaches take different groups’ resilience into account, valuing communities for the unique perspectives and strengths they bring to the table that can be built upon in early care and education environments.
By contrast, the classical scientific method as we know it purports to be race-neutral. Colorblindness was in vogue for years as a way to avoid the difficult topics of race and racism in favor of more “neutral” variables like socioeconomic status. This lens is harmful for Black communities because it ignores the oppressive racist policies that negatively impact children, families and communities.
Science is always evolving, and so should our perspectives on the seminal studies and ideas that have shaped our fields for decades. A proactively anti-racist scientific method empowers us to produce better studies, better interventions, better policies and better outcomes.
In a recent paper, we added our voices to this active conversation. We looked back at a groundbreaking study in our field of early childhood — the Carolina Abecedarian Project.
A proactively anti-racist scientific method empowers us to produce better studies, better interventions, better policies and better outcomes.
The Abecedarian Project began in the early 1970s and has since become one of the most frequently cited studies of child development. The researchers found that when they supported children from low-income households with high-quality early learning experiences, those children not only did better academically in school, but also went on to have different life outcomes than their peers in the control group.
These findings have been profoundly influential, and spurred much of our current advocacy efforts in early childhood today. But the study almost entirely left out rich layers of analysis — about race and racism — that could have made its findings even more powerful.
Re-examining the Abecedarian Project at this time is especially important in light of the Biden administration’s prioritization of major investments in early childhood education. We want to ensure that all new research that emerges on early education takes the best of the Abecedarian Project and improves upon its limitations.
For example, while the publications reporting the study’s findings acknowledged that 98 percent of the sample were Black children, the cultural resources in the children’s communities were not discussed. Future scientific research on children and communities should bring an asset-based perspective to studies of particular racial and ethnic groups.
Another criticism we raise is that the publications did not consider the importance and value of Black educators for Black children. The majority of teachers in the Abecedarian study were also Black, yet the culturally responsive and sustaining practices they likely brought to their work with the children were not considered when discussing factors that may have contributed to the positive effects of the program. More recent research findings show that having Black educators during early childhood may help Black children succeed. This lack of visibility for Black teachers’ role and value in educating Black children must stop.
The Abecedarian Project is just one example of powerful work that can be further improved by embracing an anti-racist perspective, and our paper encourages these anti-racist approaches today and in the future. This is how good science evolves.
Many scientists are leading this charge — including our colleagues and partners atthe Equity Research Action Coalition at the UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, the RISER Network, and the Children’s Equity Project.
Collectively, we are working to bring proactive anti-racism into the scientific method. We have much to learn, but here are a few key ways that scientists can use an anti-racist lens to inform their work in pursuit of both justice and better science:
- We must move away from a deficit lens that casts blame on individuals rather than on the systemic inequities that create the conditions that harm people.
- We must see Black children in a holistic way — from the ways they learn, talk and connect with others, to the ways they experience the world. We champion ideal learning environments, which prioritize equity to support each young learner’s unique experiences.
- We must examine whether our measures and tools are culturally relevant and meaningful to the communities that are part of our research. We cannot just assume that a “good” measure, like “sensitive and warm interactions,” has the same impact or looks the same for every community. Recognizing such nuances requires involving community members in the development of measures and indicators.
- We have to ensure that our researchers, especially the principal investigators, are representative of the communities being studied. Having Black researchers and other researchers of color lead the work will enrich and improve the knowledge being created — and advance equity in the long run.
Each of these tactics by themselves is not enough to address racism in the early childhood research enterprise. But collectively all of them could improve the science to advance equity for Black children and families and other communities of color.
Iheoma Iruka is a research professor in the department of public policy and director of the Equity Research Action Coalition at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill. She co-wrote “Don’t Look Away: Embracing Anti-Bias Classrooms.”
Elizabeth Pungello Bruno was an investigator on the Abecedarian Project from the age 21 follow-up through the age 40 follow-up. She is president of the Brady Education Foundation, and serves as board chair of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.
This story about anti-racist science was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.