Standardized Childhood

The Political and Cultural Struggle over Early Education
Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA 2007

In his fourth book in a decade Dr. Bruce Fuller brings the required depth and elaboration to the Universal Pre-Kindergarten discourse. Fuller voices concern that preschool locus of control is shifting away from Community Based Organizations (CBOs) which presently comprised over 113,000 diverse early childhood settings serving over 9 million under-five year old children in this country. The CBOs articulate a diverse array of “best practices” reflecting the community norms and unique child-rearing practices found in our pluralistic society.

The Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) movement, gaining political traction from state boards of education and teachers unions, and funding from a pair of charitable foundations (Pew Charitable Trusts and the Packard Foundation), moves to consolidate and to bring under the control of public schools the existing diverse preschool movement. Not unlike the kindergarten movement of a century ago, when the diverse kindergarten movement was swallowed up by public schools, Fuller wonders if preschool will not become just another grade level in the public school’s poor delivery on the promise of providing an education for all children.

Fuller provides the historic and philosophic context of five centuries as Western society examines the nature of the child and the nature of childhood. Elaborating the UPK discussion is the dilemma of the woman balancing career and child rearing with, after all these decades, the woman shoulder 90% of this double job. Now add to the debate the public school reforms that wish to shift the focus and responsibility for educational reform to the preschool where the curriculum will align with public school standards and get our children ready for kindergarten! Chapter 2 is a must-read for all Montessorians as we identify with the romantic developmentalist as Fuller jibes. Montessorians may find more in common with an array of other CBOs with their own unique spin on the nature of the child (and cultural and linguistic diversity), rather than centralized, state generated standards and practices.

After these dense, chocolate-decadence-for-the-mind chapters, Fuller presents the “play book” for how UPK can evolve. Oklahoma was the first state to implement universal preschool (1993) as a vehicle for filling the empty kindergarten seats vacated in population shrinking rural sectors of the state. Four year olds were permitted to fill vacant seats in kindergartens. Little discussion regarding the appropriateness of this experience for the four years old seems to have occurred! Seat time drops straight to the bottom line for the public school ledger. Vignettes abound in these chapters that visit Oklahoma, California and the “Rainbow Room” (no state mentioned) as the states and the communities grapple with the complex issues.

Catch your breath and move into the most riveting section of the book: all that we “know”, that the research tells us, is not so! The earliest studies, in the 1960s and 1970s, were based upon very small samples of a very homogenous group of young children. Statistics 101 cautions 1) against generalizing to a whole population from too small a sample size, and 2) generalizing from a sample of a population to an entirely different population without the same cultural or linguistic characteristics. The early studies did just that! And actual brain research, in more recent history, does not support what brain-research-pop- culture would lead us to believe! (A-a-augh, no!) Now this is interesting, across cultures, gender and race children react and profit for differing preschool experiences. For example, early research would have us believe that preschool is better for all children, while Asian children do better by staying at home! (Read about young white males and long hours in day care.) Finally, the scared cow of the educator: a BA-degreed teacher working with young children will provide a richer, measurably superior experience for the young child – not true according to replicated research. (Why did I bother with all those degrees?!)

Fuller presents as even-handed a picture as is possible given our increasing diverse population and American’s respect for plurality above tidy bureaucracy. No matter what side of the debate you find yourself, familiarity with many-layered issues allows the reader of this bookto be the reflective practitioner we purport to be.

Dr. Bruce Fuller, presently professor of Education and Public Policy at UC Berkeley, was formally a research sociologist at The World Bank, and instructor at Harvard University.