Building equitable early learning programs


Racism is manifested and institutionalised in many areas of life, from education and housing to employment, health care, and the criminal justice system.


Dr Ebonyse Mead and and Dr Tameka Ardrey of Georgia Southern University have published a new book, Building equitable early learning programs, which sets out to address racial inequities in early childhood education.


With 38 years’ professional experience between them, their new book aims to help education professionals to analyse the causes of racial inequities in early childhood, and to address the injustices they identify.


Building equitable early learning programs is available from Gryphon House from June 1st.


Image source: ChildrenNatureNetwork /





Hello and welcome to Research Pod. Thank you for listening and joining us today.


In this episode we look at the work of educators Ebonyse Mead and Tameka Ardrey of Georgia Southern University in the United States.


Mead and Ardrey have published a new book, Building equitable early learning programs, which sets out to address racial inequities in early childhood education.


Most of us recognise those ‘a-ha’ moments, when we learn something that changes the course of our professional lives.


For Ardrey, it was learning in college that US schools were structured to prepare students for their future roles in society, on the assumption that white students would lead and students of colour would serve.


Mead was already working as a parent educator when she came across data that showed that Black pre-school children were three times more likely to be suspended than their white peers.


As African-American women, these insights led Mead and Ardrey, in their words, to be ‘overwhelmed by feelings of discomfort and disbelief’. They also prompted them to focus their careers on tackling racial inequity in early learning settings.


With 38 years’ professional experience between them, their new book aims to help education professionals to analyse the causes of racial inequities in early childhood, and to address the injustices they identify.



As Mead and Ardrey explain, racism is manifested and institutionalised in many areas of life, including education and housing, as well as employment, health care, and the criminal justice system.


Statistics show, for example, that children of colour are more likely than white students to be identified as having special needs, and are less likely to be recommended for gifted and talented programmes. As Mead learned, they are also far more likely to be suspended from school.

In addition, children of colour are more likely to attend schools that are poorly resourced, with inadequate facilities. They are also more likely to be taught by less qualified teachers, using out-of-date text books and equipment.


Poverty is another issue that disproportionately affects children and families of colour. As the authors explain, race and poverty are inextricably linked and give rise to a chain of adverse impacts that determine people’s life chances.


For example, young children from low-income backgrounds are less likely to attend pre-school, and are less advanced than more affluent students when they start school. Poverty may also result in children having inadequate nutrition and housing, which affects their ability to learn. It may also lead to stress, which is in turn linked to diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. All of these conditions are more prolific in African-Americans than white Americans.


Mead and Ardrey identify other inequities within the health and criminal justice systems. These include the fact that African-American and Latine children are less likely than white children to receive medical diagnostic imaging tests such as X-rays and CT scans. Statistics also show that one in three African-American males, and one in six Latine males, can expect to go to prison at some time in their lives, compared with one in 17 white males.



Focusing on education, why do children of colour have such different outcomes from white students? Mead and Ardrey argue that in addition to institutional racism, at the heart of the problem is a cultural disconnect between students and their education experience.


Despite 50% of children in American public schools being children of colour, 82% of educators are monolingual, middle-class European-Americans, with limited experience of children from diverse backgrounds.


In addition, white, European-American culture dictates schools’ education programmes and teaching styles, as well as policies and practices. The cultural experience of up to half of all students is simply not reflected in their learning environment.


While schools and educators may argue that they take a ‘colour blind’ approach and treat students according to their individual merits, Mead and Ardrey show how these concepts are problematic and only serve to perpetuate racial and social injustice.


A colour-blind approach ignores the unique histories, cultures, values and experiences of children of colour. It also prevents educators from thinking critically about race and their own racial biases. And while meritocracy is a core American value, Mead and Ardrey argue that it’s damaging because it ignores the systematic and institutional racism that privileges white people at others’ expense.


The book also takes issue with the theory of cultural deprivation – the idea that problems within non-white communities lead students to have negative attitudes to education, which affects their ability to succeed.


As we said earlier, families of colour face significant problems with education, housing, employment, health-care and the criminal justice system, as well as poverty. But, Mead and Ardrey explain that problems are the result of structural racism that create inequitable outcomes for students of colour.



The authors argue that a paradigm shift is needed in the way educators teach, support and engage with children of colour. The book outlines ways to promote a culture of equity within learning programmes, and to help educators of young children to revise their practice to support the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse learners.


To support a socially just workforce, Mead and Ardrey advocate for teachers to have more professional training in culturally responsive, anti-bias education. For example, developing ‘communities of practice’ allows educators to come together to critically reflect on their classroom practice, and explore their own attitudes to race, power, privilege and oppression.


The book also promotes the development of authentic relationships and partnerships between teachers and culturally diverse families. Too often, teachers’ main contact with families is when there is an issue with a student, or at parent-teacher meetings, which parents may be reluctant to attend because of their own educational experience.


To build mutual trust, Mead and Ardrey recommend teachers should visit students in their own neighbourhoods and homes. Other examples of relationship-building include holding in-school cultural nights to which parents or caregivers are not only invited but help plan the event. The goal is to demonstrate that parents and caregivers input is valued and needed.


The authors argue that educators need to do more to understand racially and ethnically diverse learners, and to address their own implicit biases and unconscious beliefs. This includes getting to know students’ socio-cultural backgrounds, and seeing education from their point of view.


Allied to this is the need for teachers to become more aware of the different learning styles associated with different cultural backgrounds. For example, students from African-American backgrounds have a more experiential, collaborative and kinaesthetic learning style that allows them to work together and move around while learning.


It’s important that every child feels that they are understood and matter. To support this, educators need to build meaningful, nurturing relationships that are based on understanding children’s socio-cultural background and daily life experience.


In addition, Mead and Ardrey argue that education institutions should not only embrace the concept of equity, but implement it as practice. This includes actively making sure that students’ cultural backgrounds are incorporated into every aspect of the learning environment. For example, classroom wall displays should represent the whole school community, and art and play materials should reflect students’ various skin tones.


Educators and education policy-makers must also revise the early childhood policy framework to ensure that policies, for example on suspension, don’t privilege some students at others’ expense.


Mead and Ardrey’s book is strongly supported by academic evidence, as well as the authors’ personal experience. Not only does it explain why educators must address the issue of racial inequity if all children are to reach their full potential, it also offers practical recommendations for how educators can implement socially just early learning programmes.


Though the professional knowledge that informs the book comes from the authors’ experience in early years settings, its insights and recommendations are relevant to teachers of all age groups. In particular it demonstrates the danger of the colour-blind policies that have dominated many educators’ attitudes to race in recent years. By not seeing the colour of a child, and by not reflecting on their own attitudes, teachers are ignoring the racial and institutional biases in education.


Race is an important part of everyone’s being, and race and racism have a strong impact on children’s development. Talking to children about race can help to build positive racial and ethnic identity and is good for children’s well-being.


Mead and Ardrey argue that education that addresses students’ culture and diversity and promotes equity benefits all children – not just children of colour. As they conclude, ‘All children have a right to learn in an environment where their identity is affirmed, celebrated, and respected.’



That’s all for this episode – thanks for listening, and stay subscribed to Research Pod for more of the latest science and ideas. See you again soon.

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