This week brings the release of an important new book on early care and education. False Starts: The Segregated Lives of Preschoolers comes from Dartmouth sociology professor Dr. Casey Stockstill. Stockstill embedded herself in two preschools in Madison, Wis.: a Head Start program where 95% of the children were children of color and all came from low-income backgrounds, and a private preschool in an affluent area where 95% of the children were white. With crisp storytelling and keen analysis, Stockstill (a former Head Start aide herself) draws out the myriad ways segregation shows up in early childhood education settings — and how, in turn, that segregation informs the policy landscape.
The brilliance of Stockstill’s work is in how she brings readers down from the abstract to nitty-gritty reality: How do concentrations of poverty or privilege influence the minutiae of early childhood settings, ranging from how much of the daily routine is completed to how children are allowed to interact with objects brought from home? What societal and institutional expectations are being implicitly and explicitly taught? What does this mean for the experience of teachers? And, what does understanding the implementation level suggest about our policy conversations?
Whether you are a child care veteran or new to the issue, you’ll walk away from False Starts buzzing with thoughts. I had so many I decided to schedule an interview with Stockstill to go deeper.
The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Elliot Haspel:One of the fundamental points you make is that there are several different ways of thinking about preschool, and two of the dominant ones are ‘compensatory’ versus ‘supplemental.’ Can you talk a little bit about that distinction, and how you saw it underlying different characteristics in the two programs you observed?
Casey Stockstill: I think you see preschool as compensatory all over Head Start. I think that’s maybe a controversial claim these days, because I’ve seen a shift. In the sixties, definitely, Head Start was supposed to be a compensatory program to make up for these quote-unquote “shortcomings” of poor families. But the discourse has shifted and I think Head Start describes itself as a whole-child, whole-family approach. They talk about wraparound supports. They don’t want to have a deficit framing, that’s not the intention.
Yet for me, when I was in the classroom with teachers, that is some of the [deficit] language they were using. And I mean, honestly, I’m like, how do you say something is missing without applying a deficit? I heard expressions like, ‘Oh, we gotta take the kids outside because some of their parents might not take them outside.’ ‘They might not be able to brush their kids’ teeth at home.’ ‘We can’t do show and tell. The parents are really busy and don’t always have toys for their kids.’ It’s interesting because some of it is reflecting real scarcity and real gaps. But some of it is not.
What was interesting to me is this framework of Head Start’s going to compensate for challenges at home. It makes a lot of the classroom rules go to the least advantaged kid.
And then I’d say, preschool as a supplement – – that’s more coming from my analysis. It’s something I want us to consider in the way we talk about preschool. I hear it in mom groups, honestly the thinking being ‘I have many options for the kind of child care I could have, or maybe I could even be a stay-at-home parent, should I send my kid to preschool?’ And the thinking is like, ‘Yeah, it’s a positive social experience that will add on to the great stuff you’re probably doing at home.’
Haspel: That makes sense. I’ve always remembered the LBJ quote in announcing Head Start about how it was going to “rescue these children from the poverty which otherwise could pursue them all their lives.” Even though we’ve tried to move away from that, it’s still in there from the very beginning. One of the impacts of segregated classrooms you write about is that they aren’t neatly captured in the observational checkboxes that are used to rate the quality of classrooms. As you know, there’s been a debate in recent years around how we think about quality in ECE settings and how we think about Quality Rating & Improvement Systems (QRIS). So given that, what do you think your research suggests for the future of quality?
Stockstill: I think, yeah, this is being talked about. I’m happy to see it discussed. But I feel like the discussion is more ‘how can we tweak these QRIS systems to make them fold in equity?’ I think we need more discussion and more of an examination. I hope my book pushes that along a little bit, because I feel like quality is how we sleep at night. People often seem to care about segregation because they’re worried that poor kids or kids of color are more likely to be in low-quality programs. The assumption being: as long as we get those kids into high-quality programs, this is all fine. And so much of the texture and the feel of classrooms for children is not captured at all in quality systems.
So yeah, I don’t know if it’s a rethinking or, more unlikely, QRIS would be abandoned. But I’d like to see more of incorporating families’ feelings about their school. Are they getting what they need out of school? I do like the discussions of equity; like, you shouldn’t be able to be a five-star or “high quality” program and be expelling and suspending Black children at a higher rate.
Haspel: Absolutely, it’s a live conversation. I think there’s not one clear answer. I think this book really does contribute to that conversation, too. Because you show so clearly that you can look at a program that has the things that check the boxes, but if they don’t have the other characteristics in place, they are not necessarily getting the quality for the kids.
One thing along those lines: I was really struck by the part where you talked about the daily routines. How many books Great Beginnings had read, how many books Sunshine Head Start had read and so on. Is it fair to say that segregation is getting in the way of learning opportunities or the building of that academic foundation that we’ve been increasingly asking early childhood education to provide?
Stockstill: Would I say, were the Head Start teachers doing a good job? Yes. Were they doing what they should have done with the group of kids that they had? Yes. However, like all teachers know, you have to teach a whole group of kids and that includes focusing on the ones that take most of their attention. So there were kids that could have sat through a book, that wanted to read more, wanted to have more engagement, but could not because we have clustered so many of the challenges of poverty and structural racism in one class.
And I just really want people to see the link between doing that and having these schools that are all affluent and mostly white. Like Great Beginnings, which is able to be the way that it is because it’s not asked to serve kids of color and poor kids. And they chose to use what I saw as time and attention to spare on reading. So yeah, I think it does play a role in school readiness for both groups.
Haspel: One interesting difference was the way that the Great Beginnings teachers much more tightly controlled the play in the classroom, like directing free choice time versus the autonomy that was given with Head Start kids. It really reminded me that a lot of the discourse—and you even mention this—around intensive parenting being the dominant parenting philosophy. So my question is, why do you think that the Great Beginnings teachers were being so much more prescriptive? What do you think was underlying that?
Stockstill: I think they see it as encouraging well-rounded skills. And they talked about social exposure and liking the kids to mix up their playmates. So you know, Ms. Erika in the book talks about like, ‘oh, if I see one girl only plays with this other girl, I want to make sure she can connect with other kinds of people, so I’ll make sure she’s paired with one of the boys.’ But yeah, I definitely see intensive parenting in it, too, this idea that we need to curate children’s experiences.
Haspel: Speaking of the teachers: We talk a lot in the field around compensation as being the key factor in recruitment and retention. And it is, of course! But you talk about Great Beginnings teachers—who don’t get paid a whole lot more than market rate—who had such low turnover. So is there something that’s missing, do you think, in the workforce conversation?
Stockstill: Yeah, I mean, it’s an uncomfortable conversation. But kids, behaviors and families—what families are needing or demanding or assuming that teachers can do—that is workload! That is a teacher’s workload and their workplace environment. The Head Start teachers had better benefits from what they told me, but the pay wasn’t great, and all of them worked second jobs. And then at Great Beginnings, they had [worse benefits], similar pay and they also worked second jobs. Yet they have this satisfaction. That’s not even just about being a preschool teacher. But it’s the Great Beginning teachers saying, ‘I want to work at this school for life, I’m a lifer.’ They would say that the kids are so great, the families are so great, my co-workers get it. They also really appreciated lesson planning autonomy.
I find this fascinating because we are trying so hard to deliver a good preschool experience for poor kids. The way that gets done is kind of like other social programs for kids in poverty. We layer on paperwork and requirements, because if we paid for something to happen in that classroom, we want it documented that it happened.
So Head Start has meal counts and tracking interventions and developmental checklists and 4K curriculum. All this stuff that in many teachers’ view, takes them away from the job. It adds stress without adding benefits. Teachers know it is hard to find a preschool where you’re gonna make great money. So if you’re going to be low paid, they are like, where can I find respect and support for my craft of teaching? My new project is actually a deeper look at how teachers experience workloads across 60 segregated classrooms.
Haspel: You have this great quote: “In the U.S., we ask for preschool to do something we don’t ask of any other institutional experience. Through one fantastically enriching year, the hope is that poor kids will be equipped to succeed in navigating underfunded, unequal institutions as they progress through the rest of their lives.
Public discourse is normalizing pouring more into the fourth year of a child’s life than into their first, second or third years of life.” Broadly speaking, then, how do you think society should properly position preschool?
Stockstill: I’m so tired of the preschool discourse and I was so into it. By the way, that’s part of what inspired the project: working as a teacher aide in a Head Start being like ‘this is great. These kids are gonna benefit so much that they wouldn’t without this!’ All of that.
I was completely inside of that discourse watching presentations from poverty scholars about how ‘look at the impact we can have. If we just spend this money, we spend this X amount on a 4-year-old, it gives these returns. It’s cheaper for society to invest here as opposed to elsewhere.’
I’m tired of that narrative. It’s an efficiency narrative. I know that’s not popular, because we don’t have unlimited funds. But I see child care as part of families, villages. I want to see that we’re making a lifelong investment in citizens. Because, you know, hopefully, we all want an educated, thriving citizen base and workforce. And that starts from birth. I want families to have options for affirming, respectful, exciting child care from birth.
Haspel: Here’s my last question for you. If the book has the impact you want it to have, what’s gonna look different when you and I talk 10 years from now?
Stockstill: We’ll have more preschools that are not segregated by accident. We might have some [segregated preschools] left that are culturally affirming, providing a protective kind of a buffer effect for families of color that want that. But we’ll have a lot more class- and race-integrated preschools.
We are hopefully at an inflection point where we’ll continue expanding and integrating preschools [as part of a system that starts at birth]. Unlike K-12, where we built so many schools in an era of segregation by law and then we’ve been trying to undo that, we’re not done building preschools. So we have the opportunity to make them fantastic for kids, right? But we have to ask slightly different questions, I think, than what we’re currently asking.
Elliot Haspel is a nationally-recognized child & family policy expert and commentator, with a specialty in early childhood and education issues. He is the author of Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It, and a Senior Fellow at the think tank Capita. Elliot has appeared on television as an analyst, including on The PBS Newshour with Judy Woodruff, and his writings have appeared in a wide variety of top publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. Elliot holds an B.A. in History from the University of Virginia and an M.Ed. in Education Policy from Harvard's Graduate School of Education.