Dialogue on Early Childhood Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education

Fostering High Quality Programs

Playing Fair and Square: Issues of Equity in Preschool Mathematics, Science, and Technology

Rebecca S. New

The period of early childhood is a time in which children’s development is especially ripe for the enhancement of numerous social, emotional, and cognitive capacities. Contemporary research also confirms that the experiences of three-, four-, and five-year-olds are significant precursors to children’s subsequent learning and school achievement. Unfortunately, the young child’s readiness to learn also includes, by definition, a vulnerability to a lack of certain educational experiences. While some of the variation in children’s learning and development is the result of purposeful choices made by parents, teachers, and other adult members of their communities, other differences result from lack of opportunity, motivation, understanding, or some combination of factors. Research on preschool children’s knowledge, skills, and dispositions in math, science, and technology has consistently demonstrated differences in children’s learning as a function of gender, economic and socio-cultural factors, and developmental characteristics. The set of differences associated with educational inequities serves as the focus for this paper.

While early childhood educators have questioned the appropriateness of “too-early” instruction, recent research and classroom practice validate the premise that educational opportunities associated with mathematics, science, and technology are not only highly feasible but, if done right, can contribute to children’s learning and development in other areas as well. Thus, for many in the field, the debate has shifted from a question of whether or when to instruct young children to one of how. Issues of equity must assume a position of prominence as educators consider how to encourage each young child’s emerging mathematical understandings, scientific thinking and problem-solving skills, and potential technological literacies. This paper will address two questions associated with the challenge of equity.

  1. What are the key issues of equity with respect to math, science, and technological education in the preschool-age period?
  2. How can more effective teaching contribute to greater equity, not only in those specific domains, but within the classroom and the larger society as well?

These questions warrant more complex responses than can be fully provided in this paper. The following discussion focuses on two broad themes: educational equity in an inequitable society and equity in inclusive early childhood classrooms. These themes illustrate both the problems encountered when addressing the issues of equity in math, science, and technology as well as the potentials inherent in some early childhood programs.

Placing Educational Inequities in Context

new1.jpg (12776 bytes)Children’s development and learning are influenced and interpreted by the larger socio-cultural context. Comparative studies support the premise of cultural diversity in beliefs regarding children’s needs and abilities and interpretations of appropriate educational experiences for optimal development (cf., studies on Japanese child care and early education by Lewis 1995). Beatty’s recent (1995) analysis of the history of preschool education in the United States joins research on other nations (Woodhead 1996). This research confirms the presence of diversity in (1) perceptions of high-quality early childhood programs across cultures and (2) access to high-quality early childhood programs within cultures. The notion of “diversity as adversity” is particularly relevant as it pertains to unequal and inequitable learning opportunities for young children in contemporary American society (New and Mallory 1996).

Many believe that the purpose of American educational institutions is to “follow, reflect, and reproduce the nature of the society in which they exist” (Oakes 1985, page 200). Thus, U.S. schools and their curricula have historically promoted autonomy and individual competence, an educational agenda that has placed some children at significantly greater disadvantage than others. In spite of numerous national initiatives over the past three decades that have targeted diverse populations for more equitable treatment, the contrast between some children’s educational opportunities and those available to other children remains stark. Throughout the 20th century, discrepancies in young children’s educational experiences have been documented as a function of their membership in racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse populations, with still other differences associated with gender and developmental diversity. Among the most glaring of such discrepancies is children’s unequal access to high-quality educational programs in the preschool-age period.

The United States is unique among industrialized nations in its failure to systematically provide some form of educational opportunity for all children three- to five-years of age. Adhering to the view that the responsibility for the very young child is familial and private rather than social and public, the periodic investments at the local, state, and national levels have been incapable of responding to the expressed need for affordable and high-quality early care and education. For example, since inception, such educational services as Head Start have been remarkably underfunded, typically serving less than one-third of the children who are eligible. The shortage of high-quality programs is just part of the problem, however. Issues of inequitable access to government-funded programs are joined by an overall decline in the perceived quality of numerous private and community-based programs over the past two decades, in spite of a growing knowledge base regarding the characteristics of high-quality preschool programs (Kagan and Cohen 1996).

Joining these claims of inadequate coverage and deteriorating program quality is the possibility that the nature of the field’s targeted programs may “exacerbate the very problems they were designed to ameliorate” (New and Mallory 1996, page 150). Early intervention programs are designed for young children with special needs, while other categorical programs such as Head Start are limited to the most impoverished families. The mandated deficit interpretations of eligible children or their families result in segregated programs that often preclude exposure to and experiences with classmates of varying needs and abilities. Furthermore, the curriculum in such programs typically emphasizes certain aspects of development—such as physical, social, and emotional development—at the expense of other developmental areas, for example, cognitive or preacademic gains. In spite of the overall high quality of many of these targeted programs, such characteristics may limit program effectiveness in achieving educational parity.

Children entering preschool also bring with them evidence of social and educational inequities. Even those children fortunate enough to attend a high-quality preschool or kindergarten program will still demonstrate diversity in their readiness to learn particular skills and concepts, reflecting the prejudices and the potentials of the larger society. Some children will have had numerous opportunities to visit science museums, play with tanagrams on the living room floor, and experiment with the technological mouse attached to their family’s computer. They will have acquired a vocabulary for discussing their ideas and experiences in the domains of mathematics, science, and technology. They may also have learned a great deal about the role of and value assigned to such knowledge in the larger adult society.

Other children enter into early childhood settings in the hope that they, too, will learn the skills and acquire the concepts deemed necessary for productive and meaningful participation in the larger world. Some of these children, however, will have had little or no exposure to the tools or the talk of mathematical or scientific endeavors. Their insistence that a mouse is an inhabitant of their family’s basement will be a source of amusement to other children “in the know.” Their lack of familiarity with contemporary technological tools and discourse may or may not lead to appropriate educational opportunities, depending on a number of key factors that influence what happens inside the classroom.

Inequities on the Inside

new2.jpg (9503 bytes)Professionals in early childhood education began addressing issues of racism and sexism in the teaching of young children long before the war on poverty and the multicultural education movement (cf., Dewey 1911; Goodman 1952). And yet, when children arrive at public school settings (kindergarten and beyond), those with a history of early intervention services are often assigned to readiness classes; others are grouped based on so-called risk indicators, including socio-cultural or economic characteristics (Oakes 1985). Tracking of this sort perpetuates the class and racial inequalities of American society. It also widens the divide between children excluded from participating in other models of education, including gifted and talented programs—where an emphasis on mathematical knowledge, scientific endeavors, and technological literacy is almost guaranteed—and those invited to participate. These inequalities in the resources and programs available in the preschool and subsequent elementary-age period increase the likelihood that official bodies of high-status knowledge and ways of thinking remain the property of select groups of children and their families. It is essential to place discussions of equity in math, science, and technology within this larger social, political, and economic context.

In response to this structural inequity in the public schools, the last two decades have witnessed a steady increase in the number of publications that assist teachers in responding more equitably to diverse populations of young children (cf., Derman-Sparks and the A.B.C. Task Force 1989; Kendell 1996). Efforts to create more inclusive educational programs for children with developmental differences and other special needs have also intensified; some of these children also represent racial and linguistic minorities (Harry 1992; Mallory 1998). In short, early education professionals have much on which to pride themselves. However, the field of early childhood education has not been immune to the dilemmas associated with efforts to respond more equitably to children who are diverse as a function of gender, development, or cultural background. There are also key features of the field of early education itself that may inadvertently contribute to inequities in children’s learning in the areas of math, science, and technology. These features include teacher attitudes regarding diversity; teachers’ personal and professional knowledge of math, science, and technology; and teacher beliefs about how children learn. Establishing fair, feasible, and relevant educational goals for diverse populations of young children remains a central—and controversial—challenge for early childhood educators.

From Deficits to Deference

Adult images of children have historically defined the parameters and prerogatives of child care and early education. As a result, teacher interpretations of the meaning of differences among children directly influence curriculum goals and strategies. Teacher beliefs about the mutability of such differences also influence their responses to children. Such beliefs might prompt, for example, lesser expectations for girls to participate in scientific problem-solving. Even the kinds of questions teachers ask vary as a function of teacher expectations of competence, as when, for example, boys are more often called upon for complex explanations of mechanical and conceptual concerns while girls are asked to share “facts.” Furthermore, some differences are viewed as legitimate expressions of children’s diverse interests and learning styles rather than as indicators for curriculum planning. For example, teachers might use the topic of science and technology primarily as a means of attracting the attention of otherwise disengaged learners or as an occasion to single out children with prior knowledge as “class experts,” rather than as a means to promote the knowledge and literacies of all children.

Throughout the last several decades, a “different strokes for different folks” philosophy has prevailed, which supports educational practices that respond to children’s individual differences and family lifestyles. It is difficult to find fault with a pedagogy that is grounded in knowledge about and respect for children and their families. If implemented uncritically, however, this sensitivity to differences can further exacerbate inequities in children’s learning. At the least, it can interfere with another principle central to an education for a democratic, pluralistic society: that all children are entitled to gain access to the skills and knowledge regarded as social capital in the dominant culture (Delpit 1995). This “different strokes” mentality can also undermine the role and the responsibility of teachers in changing rather than deferring to patterns of work, play, and social behavior that are less advantageous to some children.

In fact, a deference strategy often characterizes early childhood programs that adhere to a multicultural philosophy of learning about and responding to children’s family backgrounds and individual learning styles and abilities. Even as teachers strive to create a more inclusive educational environment that reflects the lives and lifestyles of all the children in the class rather than just a few, teachers’ deference to student differences may actually lead to an implicit acceptance of disappointments in educational outcomes. The complexity of this issue cannot be overstated. Put simply, in their commitment to the multicultural, anti-sexist, and inclusive education movements, early childhood educators may have miscalculated the effect on school curriculum and children’s learning when they emphasize the value and legitimacy of children’s differences more than children’s need for essential common skills and understandings.

new3.jpg (10038 bytes)Non-critical acceptance of expected variation in children’s interests or abilities does little to modify that variation. Deference to student differences may also influence some early childhood teachers to respond more systematically to children’s social and behavioral developmental needs than to their intellectual ones. For example, early childhood special education services frequently defer emphasis on intellectual content or academic goals in favor of self-help skills and social relations. Such variations in classroom practices as a function of gender, disability, or family background are similar in intent and outcome to many of those practices described in the previous discussion, in that children’s perceived differences require differential educational responses. Despite the best of intentions, however, when such deference to children’s individual and cultural differences encourages neglect of essential educational goals, such responses increase rather than eliminate issues of inequity.

Recent studies on the role of computer technology in the early childhood classroom can illuminate this problem of teacher deference to children’s differences. Initially viewed as an ideal response to the gifted child’s natural curiosity and interest, computers in many early childhood classrooms continue to be reserved for special children or as a special privilege. Children with identified learning disabilities may have a mandated provision for computer-assisted instruction, while computer time for typically developing children serves as a reward for good behavior. This interpretation of the computer’s role in the classroom serves as an especially powerful motivator for those children who may already have considerable computer experience outside of the classroom. Thus, those children who are knowledgeable about computers get additional opportunities to improve upon existing competencies. Those children who need more purposeful learning experiences coupled with teacher support and guidance continue to lag behind their peers.

Teacher Attitudes and Knowledge

Teacher attitudes and knowledge may also account for much of the inequitable treatment of preschool mathematics, science, and technology. The field of early childhood education has struggled for much of the second half of this century to establish a reputation of professionalism. However, the knowledge base deemed essential for teachers’ scientific and professional status derives almost exclusively from the child study movement and the field of developmental psychology. Few states require early childhood educators to have formal professional knowledge in the content areas as a condition of certification. Consequently, the experiences in science, mathematics, and technology that many early childhood educators bring with them to the classroom are limited by their personal histories as learners in those domains. Thus, children become accustomed to a female teacher’s comments that “boys...know more about how that thing works than I do.” Such teachers are more likely to use computers as crutches rather than as a valued educational tool. Some female teachers’ willingness to display their own lack of knowledge in computer technology also reinforces the gender stereotype that computers are not essential for girls’ development.

Teacher attitudes about specific subject matter also influence their approaches to issues of equity. For many in the field of early childhood education, experiences in math, science, and technology are generally regarded as less critical to children’s development than are play-based experiences. It is also the case that a vast majority of early childhood educators are women, whose anxieties in certain learning situations are now the topic of study in the newly defined domain of “hot cognition.” This conceptualization of the interface between teachers’ emotional anxiety, social supports, and intellectual competence has contributed substantially to our understanding of both the causes of and potential solutions to poor academic performance in mathematics, science, technology, and other areas. By explaining the relationship among affect, personal relevance, and intellectual activity, hot-cognition theory also helps to explain teacher reluctance to engage in explorations—whether mathematical, scientific, or technological—about which they feel little competence or confidence. Indeed, many early childhood educators readily admit their reticence to explicitly incorporate science and technology into their curriculum, based on their own incomplete understandings of these academic domains.

Beliefs About How Children Learn

For much of the second half of this century, early childhood professionals have debated the role of instruction in children’s learning and development. Based in great part on Piagetian interpretations of the child’s capacity to construct knowledge out of concrete experiences with objects of the material world, much of the early childhood literature has emphasized the value of play in a child-initiated curriculum. This interpretation of children’s developmental needs, in turn, has contributed to a view of the teacher’s role that has often been limited to preparing the physical environment and then following the child’s lead, rather than imposing pre-determined educational goals. This position was supported in the form of guidelines for “developmentally appropriate practice” (Bredekamp 1987). These guidelines were published by the nation’s largest early childhood professional organization (NAEYC) in response to increasing pressure from elementary school teachers, administrators, and some parents to start formal academic instruction in the preschool-age period.

The concept of developmentally appropriate practice and the associated guidelines played a valuable role in drawing educators’ and parents’ attention to the knowledge base of child development and new4.jpg (7521 bytes)especially to the role of play in children’s social and cognitive development. Based on the premise of age and individual differences as determinants of appropriate practice, this concept has also been used to support teachers’ willingness to accept children’s choices, even when such choices reinforce gender-based or cultural differences in academic competencies. Thus, for example, some early childhood teachers hesitate to interfere when girls gravitate to the dramatic play area even as the boys lay claim to the blocks, or when the non-English-speaking child prefers solitary play with puzzles over the more verbal and scientific activity associated with the water table. The role that teachers often assign themselves with respect to children’s learning of mathematics, science, and technology also reflects their views about how children learn (Fennema et al.1993). Although the concepts of play and teacher planning of educational experiences are not necessarily in opposition, the notion that conceptual understandings are best pursued by children through play and other child-initiated activities has frequently served to eliminate the need for purposeful teacher planning in domains such as mathematics and science.

A recent article, “If We Call It Science, Then Can We Let Them Play?” (Goldhaber 1994), clearly articulates the relationship between constructive play activities and important scientific constructs. The title also reveals the tension felt by many teachers when attempting to respond appropriately to children’s developmental needs and relate those needs to academic goals. While the “hands-on” maxim provides children with valuable opportunities to manipulate and explore the characteristics of scientific materials and mathematical concepts, teacher hesitancy to provide more systematic opportunities for children to reflect upon their ideas and their work makes it less likely that such play-based experiences will guarantee significant conceptual change. This minimization of the teacher’s role is supported by the belief that children learn at their own pace, when, in fact, sometimes it is the adults who are moving slowly.

What’s the Good News?

Up to this point, the discussion has focused on the more problematic aspects of achieving equity in classrooms where teachers struggle to respond appropriately to the diverse needs, interests, and capabilities of children; to confront subjects about which they feel little personal or professional commitment; and to balance developmental goals with academic expectations. The final section of this paper considers the challenge of equity from a more optimistic point of view. It is based on recent advances in our understandings of how children learn and a reconceptualization of developmentally appropriate practices in the early childhood curriculum.

Learning as a Social Process

Researchers in anthropology, psychology, and education have expanded prior conceptions of the child’s solitary construction of knowledge to emphasize the role of the socio-cultural environment in children’s learning. Contemporary theory on child development highlights the relational processes by which children and adults alike acquire the knowledge, skills, and attitudes deemed normative and desirable within particular socio-cultural contexts. Summarized most often as a theory of social constructivism, this perspective regards learning as both a social and cognitive process dependent upon interpersonal exchanges and upon optimally challenging tasks to complete and ideas to contemplate (Berk and Winsler 1995).

This new theoretical paradigm supports the premises laid out earlier in this discussion, primarily that children’s knowledge of math, science, and technology—like any aspect of children’s learning—is informed, influenced, and judged by the socio-cultural contexts and social exchanges that characterize their lives. Even very young children learn what is important, tolerated, and expected as they observe and participate in early educational experiences. Thus, gender-role stereotypes, ethnic identity, and self-image as a learner are among those understandings that develop during the period of early childhood (New 1998a). However, research also suggests that young children have the cognitive capacity to understand the difference between what people can do and what they usually do (Meece 1987). Such studies are essential to supporting teacher efforts to promote more equitable learning opportunities for all children, regardless of gender or ethnic identity.

These theoretical premises have significant implications for the role of early schooling in the formation of skills and knowledge—as well as attitudes and dispositions—regarding math, science, and technology. Furthermore, research on the role of social processes in early learning in mathematics, science, and technology makes moot the presumed need to choose between responding to children’s social needs versus their intellectual or academic needs. For example, studies on children’s early development of number concepts illustrates the interplay among social, intellectual, and developmental processes (Saxe et al. 1987). That children see the personal relevance of what they are learning, and receive appropriate social support, is critical to their formation of mathematical concepts (Ball and Wilson 1996) and to their development of interest in science (Jeffe 1995) and computers (Char and Forman 1994). Indeed, when children work together on a computer, their social exchanges promote not only their learning of technological skills (Clements 1994), but they can also facilitate their use of the computer to acquire advanced understandings of literacy, mathematics, and science (Wright and Shade 1994).

new6.jpg (13011 bytes)The benefits of social negotiations among students as they take place within collaborative learning have been demonstrated in research on the teaching and learning of science (Fosnot 1996) and mathematics (Saxe and Gearhart 1988). Such studies support theoretical understandings of learning as both an individual and a social process (Shapiro 1994). They also support new interpretations of the domains of mathematics and science themselves, where knowledge is negotiated through social exchanges within particular socio-cultural contexts (Forman 1993).

Research informed by social constructivism also supports the role of peers and teachers in facilitating instruction in mathematics, science, and technology. It also suggests that appropriate educational opportunities in these domains can enhance other aspects of children’s development. For example, we now know that children with emotional or behavioral disabilities can learn about cause and effect in their joint science activities with more capable children. Children with cognitive impairments benefit from experiences that require active thinking and reasoning about problems (including scientific and mathematics problems) that matter to them. Students with physical or sensory impairments are highly motivated to use all of their available senses in order to better observe natural phenomena (Mastropieri and Scruggs 1995). This body of research supports the notion that children of all abilities take clues from the physical and social environment regarding what is important to learn and how it might be learned (Mallory and New 1994b).

These advances in our understanding of how children learn have significant implications for the role of the early childhood educator in the early childhood curriculum. Revised interpretations of developmentally appropriate practice (Bredekamp and Copple 1997) now make explicit reference to the critical importance of teacher observations about (1) what children know and are ready to learn and (2) the nature of various forms of teacher assistance that will facilitate the child’s exploration with new materials, concepts, and conflicts. The theoretical concept of guided participation has blurred the distinction between teacher-directed and child-sensitive pedagogy. The value of teacher promotion of conceptual understanding is no longer seen as dichotomous to the role of play in children’s learning and development.

Reconceptualization of the Early Childhood Curriculum

Recent descriptors of the early childhood curriculum include integrated (with respect to developmental goals), emergent (with respect to the source of content or theme), and negotiated (as opposed to either teacher- or child-initiated). Each of these interpretations of developmentally appropriate curriculum includes the belief that children are considerably more likely to achieve goals that adults set for them when the content of new knowledge is personally meaningful, is contextually relevant, and builds upon, rather than replaces, existing competencies (New 1998a). These expectations for the curriculum place a heavy emphasis on the role of the teachers, who have the responsibility of ensuring that children have opportunities to learn from one another, that they have ample motivation to revisit their understandings, and that they are encouraged to reflect critically on their own and each other’s ideas. Such a curriculum also requires that teachers, too, see themselves as students of children’s learning and development. Teachers in Reggio Emilia, Italy, have done much to help clarify these points (Edwards et al. 1993; New 1998b).

Expanded conceptions of developmentally appropriate practice have responded to the need to acknowledge the diversity of practices that may be appropriate for diverse populations of young children (Mallory and New 1994a). Current thinking also emphasizes the importance of connecting curriculum content with the larger context in which children live. Experiences with mathematical concepts, scientific problem solving, and computer technology can relate to other aspects of children’s lives. These experiences can also create occasions for children to think critically, make predictions, and solve problems.

new6.jpg (13011 bytes)The challenge in promoting competence in the skills and knowledge deemed critical by the larger culture is to consider the usefulness of such knowledge from the perspective of children (and their families) who are culturally or linguistically diverse. Children whose family lives are outside the mainstream ought to be encouraged to explore and express their own specialized knowledge (Phillips 1994). They must also be viewed as entitled to have access to opportunities and resources otherwise unavailable (Delpit 1995). For children attempting to bridge two worlds, the role of the teacher is to embrace both realities and to model the acceptance of competence in its diverse forms and origins.

Discussions of equity in mathematics, science, and technology are typically limited to consideration of the fairness of access and opportunities to participate in activities related to those domains. However, the recent reconceptualization of the early childhood curriculum also utilizes mathematics, science, and technology to address attitudes and practices associated with issues of equity. Science, for example, provides a wonderful opportunity to utilize cooperation and problem-solving skills as small groups of children test their capacities to generate and test hypotheses. As children engage in scientific processes of observation, hypothesis generating, and hypothesis testing, they can be challenged to confront their own understandings with those of their peers.

Children struggling to utilize mathematics concepts to make classroom decisions can also be encouraged to consider the extent to which numerical advantage translates into fair play. For example, what does it mean to divide, to share, to be fair. When is the voting process not democratic? Under what conditions does a 16-to-7 outcome silence a minority voice that should be heard? Such critical analysis serves to promote children’s comprehension of the conceptual bases of mathematical computation as well as their efforts to disentangle numerical worth from social meanings (Ball and Wilson 1996). In Reggio Emilia, Italy, an athletic project on the long jump ultimately inspired children to debate the nature of gender competencies, the mathematical interpretation of a handicap, and a friendly means of taking into account different competencies when comparing distances achieved by boys and girls of different ages and abilities.

Far too often, teachers presume that children have neither the interest nor the ability to respond to socially complex issues. In fact, some of the children’s most serious engagement takes place when they pursue moral dilemmas behind the observation, “Our school’s not fair!” (Pelo 1997). Recent interpretations of the social foundations of cognition emphasize the critical role of the classroom in promoting vigorous and respectful engagement around topics of social and intellectual significance (Tharp and Gallimore 1988). Such experiences can contribute not only to conceptual changes in scientific and mathematical thinking, but they can also increase children’s appreciation of the relevance of mathematics and science to their daily lives. They can begin to view these topics as a means of improving their own thinking and their relationships to each other.

Conclusion

This reconceptualization of the early childhood curriculum—and the teaching of mathematics, science, and technology—is based not only on new understandings of how children learn, but on what they need to learn for life in a pluralistic, democratic society. And just as it is increasingly vital that children acquire conceptual understandings in mathematics, science, and technology, so too is it essential that children begin to comprehend the role that such knowledge plays in a contemporary democratic society. While many might claim that such learning goals are far from the reach of three-, four- and five-year-old children, the reconceptualized early childhood curriculum shares the belief that, just because teachers ought to begin where children are, “Beginning there has never implied staying there” (Wright 1965, page 34).

Nineteen years ago it was suggested that educators already knew enough to successfully teach all children and that it was primarily a question of “how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far” (Edmonds 1979, page 22). Perhaps this confidence in the knowledge base of the profession was prematurely optimistic, given the changes in our understandings since that time. Today, however, it does seem that we know a great deal about what we ought to be doing better.

new7.jpg (11915 bytes)Early childhood educators have the opportunity to make an immediate difference in at least a portion of the life (several hours a day) of many young children. Successful early childhood programs have also demonstrated their potential to make a difference in the continuing lives of the children and their families. “Programs that work” for minority and impoverished children in the United States act upon the theoretical premise that it is necessary to connect with children’s lives; on the political premise that it is critical to advocate for their well-being; and on the ethical premise that it is essential to contribute to parents’ abilities to support the learning and development of their children (Barnett and Boocock 1998). Families of young children must be involved in deciding upon and incorporating educational goals in mathematics, science, and technology into the early childhood curriculum. Such a change in the standard home-school relationship will require more than an increase in teachers’ professional development and parent education activities. It will require a change in attitude regarding the collective responsibility for the education of young children in an inequitable society.

The bigger question of equity in educational resources and opportunities remains a dilemma. Simply acknowledging, as a society, that the problem continues to exist may be one of the greatest challenges. At minimum, educators, community members, policy makers, and other taxpayers must somehow face up to the fact that Goodlad’s 1984 comment that schools “mirror inequities in the surrounding society and many people want to be sure that they continue to do so” remains no less true today (Goodlad 1984). Recent analyses of school reform efforts reveal the difficulties in eliminating tracking and other forms of segregation when elite groups of parents insist on maintaining such special distinctions as gifted programs for their children. This ideology of “diversity at a distance” (Wells and Serna 1996) threatens any meaningful effort to close the education gap in American society.

This paper began by acknowledging the period of early childhood as ripe for development and vulnerable to neglect. The societal context of inequities in the classroom suggests that the goal of achieving more equitable and effective means for teaching children particular subject matter (i.e., mathematics, science, and technology) is directly linked to our society’s willingness to express a more collective commitment to all young children. As we approach the end of the 20th century, we are witness to an explosion of knowledge about children’s real and potential competencies—and the consequences of their neglect. Perhaps the biggest challenge of the next century will be to actualize our potentials as adults by better advocating on children’s behalf.

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Rebecca S. New is associate professor of education at the University of New Hampshire.

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