Our Proud Heritage: Two Teachers Look Back—The Ypsilanti Perry Preschool, Part I
You are here
We are honored to present this column about a milestone in 20th century American early care and education—the Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Michigan, 1962 to 1967. (A second column on the preschool will follow in the November 2016 issue of Young Children.) Readers will celebrate the seismic importance of the program not only to the field of early care and education but also to the public and private education policies throughout the nation.
The Perry Preschool and study took place less than a decade after the 1954 US Supreme Court decision Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka et al. It is important for today’s early educators to know more about the social and political climate of our field during a time of organizing and struggles for greater civil rights. Louise Derman-Sparks and Evelyn Moore write about “an important debate [that] raged among educational theorists about the causes of and solutions to the educational disadvantages and lower academic achievement facing African American children.” They have presented a gift to NAEYC members by sharing their memories of their participation in a landmark experience in the lives of a small group of children, their families, and the teachers and staff who shared what was known about quality early education in the 1960s.
—Edna Runnels Ranck and Charlotte Anderson, Editors, Our Proud Heritage
Once upon a time—over 50 years ago, in fact—we were teachers in the Ypsilanti Perry Preschool. Then in our 20s, it was Louise’s first job after graduate school and Evelyn’s second. Now, after long careers in early childhood care and education, it seems time to tell our story. This column is the first of two. It describes the Perry Preschool’s design, demographics, social-political-ideological context, and educational principles and curriculum. The second column will explore the implications of the Perry Preschool for early childhood education today. Our intent is to expand and deepen the discussion about a historically important part of the early childhood education movement.
The Ypsilanti Perry Preschool (1962–1967), in Michigan, was one of the early preschool programs in the United States intentionally designed to increase school success for children from families with very low incomes. The children attending the preschool then became the subjects of a famous longitudinal study about the impact of early childhood education on aspects of children’s later lives (Schweinhart et al. 2005). This research took place both during the period of the Perry Preschool and for many years afterward. The Perry Preschool operated under the auspices of the Ypsilanti Public Schools Special Education Department, while the HighScope Educational Foundation conducted the longitudinal study about its children. David Weikart initiated and was director of the Perry Preschool, and then led the HighScope Educational Foundation and its longitudinal study of the Perry Preschool outcomes until 2013. The findings of that study became a major resource for convincing the federal government—and governments around the world—to invest in early childhood education for children living in great poverty.
However, the voices of the Perry Preschool teachers remained unheard. Then, in July 2013, Dr. James Heckman, director of the Center for the Economics of Human Development, University of Chicago, invited the two of us to a meeting about the central factors underlying successful early childhood programs for children from lowincome families (Heckman et al. 2013). After the meeting, Dr. Heckman suggested we write about our years as Perry Preschool teachers (1962–1965). In November 2013, we spent three amazing days talking about and recording our long-ago teaching experiences, which Dr. Heckman’s center transcribed. We found our recollections to be strikingly consistent and they became the first source of data for telling our story, as well as available for Dr. Heckman’s work.
We also drew on two additional sources: a 1964 Progress Report about the Perry Preschool (Weikart, Kamii, & Radin 1964) and a yellowing set of Perry Preschool teachers written lesson plans and reports about small group activities (unpublished manuscripts, 1962–1965). To learn about the last two years of the Perry Preschool, when we were no longer there, see “Applying Some Piagetian Concepts in the Classroom for the Disadvantaged,” by Hanne Sonquist and Constance Kamii (1967).
Design and demographics
The children who attended the Perry Preschool were all African American and lived in the segregated Ypsilanti, Michigan, African American community. One public elementary school—Perry School—served all the children in the community until they attended integrated middle and high schools. Perry School was the site of the Perry Preschool in years two through five (in year one it operated in the neighborhood community center).
Criteria for recruitment to the Perry Preschool were officially described as “3- and 4-year-old children living within the boundary of the Perry School district, coming from culturally deprived families, and testing in the range of educable mentally retarded” (Weikart, Kamii, & Radin 1964, 4). In addition, families had to be living in poverty. The “educable mentally retarded” criterion was required by the Michigan and Ypsilanti Departments of Special Education, the first funders of the Perry Preschool. IQ (intelligence quotient) testing was the method for identifying the so-called educable mentally retarded children. Although many educators now reject the legitimacy of IQ tests and scores, during the 1960s they were a central element in some theories about school failure among African American children from low-income families. At the time, African American children were the focus of research and writing about school failure.
Criteria for hiring teachers for the Perry Preschool included their educational background and experience as well as their interest in the Perry Preschool mission. All had bachelor’s degrees in early childhood, primary, or special education; a few had master’s degrees. Teachers were African American and White American, and women. The authors of this column were the new kids.
HighScope Longitudinal Study
The design of the Perry Preschool longitudinal study compared the preschool children with control group children, using the same measurements over the same time. The control group children met the same criteria as the preschool children, such as IQ scores, family demographics, and neighborhood. The control group children did not attend any form of preschool. For almost three decades, the study followed the lives of 123 children from African American families who lived in the neighborhood of Perry Elementary School in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in the 1960s. Ultimately, the statistically significant positive outcomes for the preschool children had a major role in shaping the early arguments for preschool programs.
The societal context
Educational thinking, practice, and priorities always reflect prevailing societal, political, economic, and ideological dynamics. The idea for the Perry Preschool arose during the inspiring and demanding years of the 1950s civil rights movement, with many people working for social change. John F. Kennedy’s and Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidencies in the 1960s also played a role, responding to the widespread efforts of the movement. However, institutionalized racial segregation was still the reality throughout the United States.
Although many White Americans experienced poverty, the institutionalized lack of economic, educational, and health opportunities for African Americans and other people of color disproportionately narrowed their range of options and quality of life. While the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka et al., 347 US 483, based on substantive evidence of unequal schooling for African American children, made intentional school segregation illegal, actual changes in school systems took many years of national and local civil rights movement work.
Ideologically, an important debate raged among educational theorists about the causes of and solutions to the educational disadvantages and lower academic achievement of African American children. Advocates of the cultural deprivation approach were on one side of this debate; advocates of an empowerment approach were on the other. Cultural deprivation advocates attributed the children’s lower rate of school success and lower IQ scores to their families’ inferior culture, language, and parenting practices. They proposed that teachers and social workers teach families a better way to parent, thereby “fixing” children and parents through preschool and parent education.
Opponents of the cultural deprivation position attributed children’s failure in the school system to its racism and classism and to the lack of appropriate, innovative teaching methods and curriculum. Empowerment advocates rejected the validity of IQ testing and argued for change in the schools and for eliminating the worst forms of poverty. They wanted early childhood programs to foster children’s sense of efficacy and empowerment, to provide a foundation for academic skills needed in later schooling, and to offer families skills for navigating the pathways of the school system to help them attain a highquality education for their children. Educational empowerment advocates also worked with others to increase families’ access to fair employment and housing.
Most Perry Preschool teachers—including the two of us—held the empowerment perspective, while administrators mostly took the cultural deprivation perspective. The teachers’ empowerment beliefs shaped actual practice with the children and families, although publications about the program reflected the administrators’ cultural deprivation thinking. Nevertheless, many of the Perry Preschool teachers and administrators shared the dreams and values of the civil rights movement and thought of their teaching as a contribution to the movement. Indeed, this column’s authors were actively engaged in the civil rights effort. Consequently, we brought great passion to our work with children and families. While hard to measure, it is worth considering what role teachers’ commitment played in the positive long-term life outcomes for the Perry Preschool children.
Educational principles and curriculum
The Perry Preschool did not start or operate from an already developed curriculum; rather, its pedagogy evolved over the program’s five years, drawing on several educational approaches. Piaget’s epistemological theory became predominant in the preschool’s last two years. The teachers were the primary engine of the curriculum’s evolution. Working together as a team, we reviewed weekly the children’s responses to the week’s learning opportunities and materials and the children’s individual cognitive and social-emotional development needs. We then used that information to plan for the following week. The teachers functioned as reflective, intentional professionals, which the early childhood education field now considers crucial to high-quality programs.
The developmental principle that emotional well-being and emerging cognitive abilities “are the bricks and mortar of the foundation of human development” (Shonkoff 2007, 2) informed the teachers’ thinking and daily practice. Although the Perry Preschool director focused on the children’s cognitive growth and downplayed the role of social-emotional dynamics, the teachers did not separate these two fundamental aspects of human development. We strived to foster both.
A misperception has arisen over the years—namely, that the Perry Preschool used the curriculum developed by the HighScope Educational Foundation (Hohmann, Banet, & Weikart 1979). That curriculum, however, did not appear until several years after the Perry Preschool closed its doors in 1967. The Perry Preschool’s curriculum came first, and, while it influenced the later HighScope curriculum, the two are not synonymous.
Teachers built caring, supportive, and stimulating relationships with each child and family, in the context of their community. We worked hard to communicate our belief in the children in all our interactions with them. We fostered children’s learning through their active engagement with the world. This included lots of time for play and for generating and exploring their own ideas, as well as those of their peers and teachers. Children expanded and deepened their ability to observe what was happening, and they developed language to describe what they saw, thought, and felt. Teachers created a rich learning environment made possible by a generous budget—more akin to the budgets that programs serving upper middle-class children typically had. We were able to purchase highquality, traditional early childhood education materials in addition to using natural materials gathered by the teachers. Knowing that the children’s world was mostly limited to their segregated community, we also took frequent field trips to explore places beyond their homes.
In year one (1962–1963), the balance between childdirected and teacher-directed teaching was an arena of productive debate among the teachers and administrators. The two experienced early childhood teachers argued for the former, reflecting early childhood education thinking of the time, which disapproved of directive teaching. The Perry Preschool director and the two teachers with special education backgrounds argued for the latter. The resolution was to provide a combination of both—the approach now considered most effective by the early childhood education profession.
Perry Preschool teachers believed in the fundamental importance of building respectful, two-way, collaborative learning relationships with the families. We strived to communicate our belief in each child’s intelligence and capacity to learn, and we encouraged mutual exchange of information and ideas with families. We found that families shared the teachers’ desire to support the children’s educational progress, and many expressed hope that their children would go to college. Families also indicated their awareness of the struggle for civil rights going on in the larger society, hanging photographs of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy in their homes.
However, achieving authentic relationships with families took effort and time. In many cases, teachers had to overcome families’ distrust of people from social agencies and the school—often because of families’ previous negative experiences. We had to prove to the community that we were not yet another group of professionals coming into their homes to tell them how they should live their lives. In fact, in the first year, some families refused to open their doors when teachers were trying to recruit children for the preschool.
Initially, the longtime principal of the Perry School provided significant help in gaining family willingness to enroll their children in the preschool. Community and families support grew as the preschool earned a reputation as a good place for their children. Time was also a positive factor in building trust with families, since teachers worked with them for at least one year and with most for two years. However, each new teacher still had to prove herself a friend to the community.
The preschool program
Children attended a morning session five days a week, and families received a weekly afternoon home visit for two years. Four teachers worked as a team with twenty-four 3- and 4-year-old children—a very desirable ratio. The diversity of the teachers’ backgrounds, training, and experience deepened the sharing of invaluable insights and information.
The three-hour, center-based morning program was located in the community center during year one, and then in Perry School, in a large room previously used as the gym. Traditional early childhood learning centers comprised smaller spaces within the gym. The largest block of time in the daily schedule consisted of child-choice active learning activities in learning centers (e.g., blocks, art, small-motor manipulative, dramatic play, and the book corner). Teachers set up and periodically changed the available materials, based on their assessment of the children’s needs and interests within the framework of the preschool’s overall mission. We also provided individualized scaffolding based on carefully observing what children were doing and then asking open-ended questions to encourage further experimentation and conversation about their chosen activity.
Small-group teacher-planned and directed activities, snack time with informal conversations, and outdoor play made up the rest of the daily schedule. Teachers often chose specific themes as a framework for a series of activities—a key element of the unit method popular in preschools at the time. The unit method is similar to what we now call the project method. Content of the small groups mostly focused on reading and math readiness, language development, and science. Organizing themes reflected both the teachers’ estimation of children’s cognitive needs and the children’s interests (e.g., transportation, leaves and seeds, how materials transform). Small group time always included hands-on activities, and frequent field trips provided children with experience and data. Snack time conversations built on issues children brought up and observations teachers made during the child-choice activities. Because the Perry School was the only school in Ypsilanti without a playground, teachers set up activities such as tag, races, and ball games.
Afternoon home visits
Each teacher carried out weekly afternoon home visits, lasting about an hour and a half, with the same families throughout the school year.
Teachers brought materials adapted to the needs of each child’s learning, such as books and small manipulatives to use with the child. The budget for home visit materials was generous. Parents (usually mothers) joined the teacher and child and almost all participated with interest. In addition, teachers and participating family members engaged in weekly conversations about their children’s development and learning, as well as any other topic raised by the parents (e.g., health issues or a problem with a social work agency).
While the official objective of home visits reflected a cultural deprivation viewpoint, many of the teachers, including us, saw our roles differently. We did not try to change childrearing, but rather looked for and built on the families’ strengths, and offered ways to support the skills their children needed for cognitive development and school success. Teachers relied heavily on modeling new ways to interact with children to do this. Some teachers, including the two of us, also shared strategies for being advocates for the children in the school system. However, we tended to keep silent about this part of our home visits with the preschool administrators, because it was not what we were supposed to do.
In sum, the Perry Preschool’s pedagogy combined aspects of prevailing early childhood educational thinking in the 1960s and new curricula ideas. Reflecting on what we achieved, we see that much of what we did resonates today as best practice—a topic we turn to in Part 2 of our column, which will appear in the November 2016 issue of Young Children.
Heckman, J. 2013. “Understanding and Comparing the Mechanism Producing the Impacts of Major Early Childhood Programs With Long-Term Follow-Up.” Milgrom Proposal. Unpublished manuscript. Chicago: Center for the Economics of Human Development.
Hohmann, M., B. Banet, & D.P. Weikart. 1979. Young Children in Action: A Manual for Preschool Educators. Ypsilanti, MI: HighScope.
Schweinhart, L.J., J. Montie, Z. Xiang, W.S. Barnett, C.R. Belfield, & M. Nores. 2005. Lifetime Effects: The HighScope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40. Ypsilanti, MI: HighScope.
Shonkoff, J. 2007. “Emotional and Cognitive Development Linked.” NIEER’s Preschool Matters. http://nieer.org/psm/ index.php?article=233.
Sonquist, H.D., & C.K. Kamii. 1967. “Applying Some Piagetian Concepts in the Classroom for the Disadvantaged.” Young Children 22 (4): 231–46.
Weikart, D.P., C.K. Kamii, & N.L. Radin. 1964. Perry Preschool Project Progress Report. Ypsilanti, MI: Ypsilanti Public Schools.
Louise Derman-Sparks, MA, has worked with children and adults in early childhood education for more than 50 years and is a faculty emerita of Pacific Oaks College. She is coauthor of several books, including Leading Anti-Bias Early Childhood Programs: A Guide for Change, Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, and Teaching/Learning Anti-Racism: A Developmental Approach.
Evelyn K. Moore was a special education teacher when she learned of the innovative Perry Preschool during the 1960s. After teaching at Perry Preschool, Moore cofounded the National Black Child Development Institute in 1970. The author of Paths to African American Leadership Positions in Early Childhood Education, Moore represented her field on numerous fronts, including the National Education Goals Panel and the Act for Better Child Care Services. [email protected]