Policy and Political Influences on Early Childhood Education

Ideally, public policy related to early childhood education (ECE) should be driven by research from scientific domains such as developmental psychology, neuroscience, epigenetics, and economics. However, the relationship between science and policy does not always follow a linear trajectory. As public attitudes have changed, so have our expectations for programs for young children and our expectations of their outcomes for children and families. Given the multiple domains that contribute to ECE, different scientific notions can compete simultaneously for attention. Scientific ideas often stew for a while until a window of opportunity permits a connection to policy. On occasion, a policy itself requires that research be conducted to examine that policy’s impact or rationale. The relationship of scientific findings to early childhood policy is complicated further in the United States by the lack of a national public policy for early childhood education, related to its purpose, implementation, or outcome.

This chapter will review the historical relationship between science from multiple disciplines such as psychology, neuroscience and epigenetics, and economics, and public policy related to early childhood education. While focused on the scientific knowledge that has played a role in legislation, funding and program implementation, instances in which public policy has influenced new research initiatives will be discussed. Current concerns about new research questions, metrics and methods will be presented.

The Trajectory of Scientific Thinking

Scientific inquiry from a variety of domains have informed and shaped early childhood education and care. They include psychology, neuroscience and epigenetics, and economics has contributed to a public narrative and policy regarding the care and education of young children.


The twentieth century witnessed the transition of the United States from an agrarian to an industrial nation, and public policy regarding the care and education of young children was often driven by scientific findings and shifting societal attitudes around child care, parenting, welfare, work, and individual responsibility. As the American population moved from farms to urban areas, public policy was inclined to provide financial support to women who were widowed, abandoned, and without the means to support themselves or their children. The early underlying assumption was that children were better off at home being cared for by their mothers (Blank & Blum, 1997; Jones, 2018; Stevens, 2015). However public attitudes and public policy shifted with the growing numbers of unwed mothers and people of color who began to receive government subsidies. Stevens (2015) reports that:

By 1995, 10 percent of all American mothers-including 7 percent of white mothers, 20 percent of Hispanic mothers, and 25 percent of African American mothers-were on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Almost half had never been married.


The early childhood policy agenda that provided direct payments to support poverty-stricken and widowed women so that they could remain at home and care for their children was challenged by public concern regarding the increasing numbers of Americans who were perceived to be taking advantage of public assistance.

Additional societal changes were occurring. During World War II women entered the paid workforce in large numbers, and the need increased for child care outside of the home (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009). This trend continued into the twenty-first century. Ruhm (2011) reported that, “Sixty percent of mothers with children under the age of six worked in 2008 compared with 33 percent in 1975” (p. 38). Over time, policy leaned towards using public funds to support increasing access to early childhood programs that were conducted outside of the home. The primary intent of many of these programs was to provide a safe environment while parents were working. However, for children whose families were living in poverty, early childhood education programs outside of the home were being perceived as educational interventions that could alter the trajectory of children’s development, learning, and success in life.

While many of the early ЕСЕ intervention programs targeted specific subgroups of young children, such as African American children whose families were living in poverty, the policy discussion moved to a debate on the usefulness of providing universal access within a city, state, or group of school districts. Why ЕСЕ programs should receive public funds and the expected outcomes for young children and their families continues to change over time.

Intelligence: From Fixed to Malleable

During the first half of the twentieth century, the poor academic performance of children living in poverty compared with that of their more resourced peers was attributed to innate cognitive deficits. From a scientific perspective, intelligence was fixed, and biology determined development. Some scientists linked intelligence to ethnic and racial background (Jensen, 1969). However, there was an emerging perspective that intelligence may be malleable, and researchers were investigating the impact of targeted intervention programs on the intellectual development of young children whose families were living in poverty (C. Deutsch, 1965; M. Deutsch, 1964; Gray & Klaus, 1965; Hunt, 1961).


Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was a federal assistance program in effect from 1935 to 1996 created by the Social Security Act (SSA) and administered by the United States Department of Health and Human Services that provided financial assistance to children whose families had low or no income.

The 1960s marked the emergence of some of the seminal model early childhood intervention programs as well as implementation of some of ECE’s landmark federal legislation, funding, and program implementation. The ground-breaking Perry preschool program (W. Steven Barnett, 1996) and the North Carolina Abecedarian program (Ramey & Campbell, 1984; Ramey et al., 2000) were specifically designed to provide empirical evidence on the short- and long-term effects of intervention programs on African American children who were living in conditions of poverty'. In 1967 the Chicago-Public School District became the first district to use Title I funds under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to establish the Child-Parent Centers (CPC), a model early childhood preschool program, which demonstrated strong long-term outcomes for young children (Reynolds, 2000; Reynolds, Ou, & Temple, 2018; Reynolds & Wolfe, 1997). The early childhood research base of the early twenty-first century has its roots in the longitudinal results of the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian projects, and the Chicago Child—Parent Centers. These three remain the gold standard of early childhood education, and they laid the foundation for the federally funded Head Start program, which began in 1965, and the Elementar}' and Secondary Education Act of 1965. While these early programs were initially targeted to support poor children and children of color, over time this trend shifted to discussions of whether these programs might benefit all children, including more financially well-off and middle-class families who were increasingly unable to afford the rising cost of child care.

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