The successes and challenges of the national early childhood education movement are playing out in Texas, which has invested in a large-scale program that offers a window into broader debates about academic opportunity, the changing demographics of the United States and the best interests of children.
Dr. Robert Crosnoe, associate dean of Liberal Arts and Rapoport Centennial Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, answers a few questions from University of Texas Press about his assessment of the development of early education programs serving Latina/o children in Texas.
Q: Texas has a surprisingly long history as a leader in state-funded early childhood education. Can you briefly describe this history?
Crosnoe: Texas was indeed an “early adopter” when it comes to state-funded early childhood education. This state initiative grew out of educational reforms beginning in the 1980s and led by H. Ross Perot but then put into action by a number of governors from that decade to today.
That often strikes people — Texans and non-Texans — as curious, since Texas is not typically thought of as a state that broadly invests in social programs. Why this initiative happened and why it has been sustained for so long have to do with the twin forces supporting early childhood education across a diverse array of states.
In terms of public opinion and policy debate, there are two major pushes for large-scale state investments in early childhood education. The first is that early childhood education is a part of the social safety net, subsumed within a state’s health and human services mission to serve its citizens and help families. The second is that early childhood education is a part of workforce development, a way of improving the state’s future labor force by investing in human capital, training and skill development. This latter push is a primary reason that the Texas pre-K program came to be, the view that investing in early education now bolsters the state workforce tomorrow. The economic argument carried the day in Texas much more than it did in other states, but the end result is a state-funded early childhood education program in Texas similar to and often bigger than those of other states.
Q: You spent time with a Texas school district pseudonymously name SWISD in your book The Starting Line. What did you observe at SWISD that was particularly promising for early childhood education?
Crosnoe: SWISD is a large and incredibly diverse school district in a major metropolitan area in Texas. It is important to study because demographically, the major cities of Texas are today where many parts of the country will be in the future, particularly in terms of the district’s big Latina/o population and its level of economic inequality.
In addition to its important role as a demographic bellwether, the district has a broad pre-K program attached to elementary schools. It is innovative in many ways, including experimenting with the settings of its pre-K programs vis-à-vis feeder elementary schools and offering a range of health and other services to children and families. And it clearly prioritizes early childhood education as part of its overall mission. It is doing many things right that other districts could learn from, and also facing many obstacles that — if we can figure them out there — will inform what other districts do in the future.
Q: Can you explain what you describe as “the tension between the developmentally appropriate practices tradition and the standards and accountability movement,” and why this dichotomy is false?
Crosnoe: People feel very strongly about how early education should look and what it needs to do. Many people — including educators and parents — believe that early childhood education needs to reflect the developmental stage of young children. They are different in so many ways from school-age children, so their preschool educational settings should look different from elementary school.
There is another camp that thinks that making preschools more like elementary schools — particularly, more formal and more oriented to results — is the answer, that there need to be well-thought-out expectations of performance to which programs are held.
These two camps are often thought to represent opposite sides of the spectrum, and when viewed as stark contrasts, they are indeed opposites. That stark contrast, though, is a little too stark. One could argue — and I do in The Starting Line — that the goals of the two approaches are more aligned than commonly acknowledged and that we can find ways to let the dialogue between the two support those goals.