“African American Children in Early Childhood Education” aims to re-language the achievement gap

Screen Shot 2017-07-26 at 8.37.50 AMIn their new book, African American Children in Early Childhood Education, Associate Professor Stephanie Curenton and her co-editors Dr. Iheoma Iruka from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Dr. Tonia Durden from Georgia State University write that Black children are often “overlooked and unheard in an education system that has yet to offer them equality of opportunity.”

Along with over 20 authors from institutions across the country—as well as one from the United Kingdom— Dr.’s Iruka, Curenton, and Durden explore what it means to consider the achievements of African American children from a strengths-based perspective.

The book features a series of essays from prominent scholars in the field who have written about key topics and issues that need to be considered when designing policy investments in early childhood education.

“Specifically, we are seeking to change the narrative to focus more on the advanced level of achievement among Black children, rather than the negative version,” Dr. Iruka said.

Their hope is that educators, teacher educators, educational leaders, researchers, and policy makers will embrace a shift away from the so-called “achievement gap” and instead think of programmatic ways to address the “opportunity gaps.”

“Our aim is to re-language the problem,” Dr. Curenton said. “How you tell a story or how you name a problem is going to affect the solutions that you ultimately come up with. If we continue to name the problem as an achievement gap, we’ll see policies and programs that only focus on the child. But, if we start to refer to the problem as systemic within education—such as problems with the way teachers are trained, problems with discrimination and bias in school suspension and expulsion policies, problems with teacher pay and low wages—we will end up with solutions that are geared towards improving the system.”

The book focuses thematically on “striving for educational equity,” addressing much of what Dr. Curenton describes as the need to re-language the problem, “home and school environmental contexts,” and “preparing teachers and improving practice.”

“For example one chapter explores how educators can think about building upon their students’ oral language skills and narrative skills,” Dr. Curenton said. “This is an area of strength for Black children and it can be incorporated by teachers in the classroom.”

Dr. Durden added that she and her fellow editors were also intentional, in two chapters, about incoprating narratives that involve African American fathers and their contributions and roles in the healthy and holistic growth and development of young Black children.

“It’s often the perception that they are absent within the lives and experiences of young children,” Dr. Durden said. “It’s very important to us to be able to highlight the importance of African American fathers in the community, and also in the education of young children.”

The book offers practical steps that educators can take in their schools, such as conducting an environmental scan to assess curriculum and classroom activities and practices to discern whether they reflect the true experiences of students.

“Are there books that feature children who are similar to the children in the classroom,” Dr. Durden offered as an example. “Not just books about Black children, buf if it’s an urban school do the books represent an ubran environment? Do the teaching interactions and curricula reflect an expectation of educational excellence rather than the minimum acquisition of basic standards?”

In addition to changing the narrative at the classroom level, Dr.’s Iruka, Curenton, and Durden aim to spur a discussion about educational policy and impact the way Black youth achievement is addressed at the state and federal level.

“The early years is such an important time and we need to begin to mobilize and leverage the information we have to better support the development and health of children, especially those who have been historically disenfranchised,” Dr. Iruka said. “This book seeks to go beyond ‘gazing’ at the challenges, but provide some practical solutions for policymakers and leaders across various areas from education to health.”

By Lisa Randall