A Collective Notion of Childhood?

MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry’s statement about childhood in the United States has inspired a flurry of op-ed writers and political commentators to weigh in (see Slate, The New York Times, and Salon.com).  Her comment?

We have never invested as much in public education as we should have. We haven’t had a very collective notion of, these are our children. We have to break through our private idea that children belong to their parents, or children belong to their families, and recognize that children belong to whole communities. Once it’s everybody’s responsibility and not just the household’s, we start making better investments.

Conservative pundits have decried Harris-Perry’s attack on the nuclear family.  Rush Limbaugh responded: “This is Marx, Mengele, communist manifesto, the nuclear family has always been under attack by communists, leftists. The nuclear family, just like religion, must be destroyed, and in its place the community, the collective.”  Liberal pundits have responded, arguing that as a society, it essential that work together for the general good, which, in this case, means supporting children to become educated members of society.  As KJ Dell’Antonia, writer for The New York Times blog Motherlode, argues:

Most Americans, most politicians, most pundits would surely agree that if America is going to invest in anything, it should be our children and their future. Few would suggest that children aren’t a part of our communities, or don’t merit our support. It’s how to provide that support and investment that we disagree on, and that disagreement needs airing and discussion for there to be any change.

But when even the suggestion that we could make better collective investments in our youth can become a flashpoint for the rhetoric of division, the conversation about how we can better support families and care for our children becomes one we’re even less likely to have.

And, in a spirit of full disclosure, I agree with Dell’Antonia, for the most part.  Children are an integral part of our community and deserve care and respect.  Too often, children’s issues are deemed family issues, which are, in turn, classified as personal or individual issues, and then are either side-stepped or ignored.  Or children’s issues (and notions of childhood) become so mired in debate that change is almost impossible.

However, there is one question, which I think has been neglected, that should be part of the conversation.  Namely: whose collective notion of childhood?

Certainly all of us would agree that children’s well-being is important.  Children should have access to adequate nutrition, healthcare, and education.  But what about issues of faith?  Or ethics?  Or culture?  What would a collective ‘American’ notion of childhood look like (see also James & Prout, 1997Lareau, 2011; Tobin, et al., 1991)?  I don’t have an answer to these questions.  But I do think that they are ones that should be asked.  Moreover, we must be especially careful not to abandon our collective responsibility as a society because we cannot agree.

Update: Beatrice from “The Poland Passage” wrote a great piece on communal responsibility and childhood in Poland.  It makes an interesting counterpoint to some of the media surrounding collective notions of childhood in the U.S.


Prized Posessions

Sorry for the long break!  After attending the annual Comparative and International Education Society conference, I was on Spring Break, and then desperately trying to catch up.  Ah, the ebb and flow of graduate school work.  Anyway, I should be able to return to regular posts soon.

In the meantime, have you come across the work of Italian photographer Gabriele Galimberti?  Galimberti explores childhood through photos of children with their more prized possessions: their favorite toys.


Alessia – Italy

Although Galimberti’s work speaks to experiences shared by children around the world, he also notes some differences in how children interacted with their toys:

The richest children were more possessive.  At the beginning, they wouldn’t want me to touch their toys, and I would need more time before they would let me play with them.  In poor countries, it was much easier.  Even if they only had two or three toys, they didn’t really care.  In Africa, the kids would mostly play with their friends outside.

Here are two other photographs from the series:


Norden – Morocco


Tyra – Sweden

What were your favorite toys as a child?  How many “prized possessions” did you have?  Did you have to share your toys?  Or were they wholly yours?

(Photos via)

Early Childhood Education

Early Childhood EducationPresident Obama’s State of the Union Address, among other things, called for high-quality preschool for every child in America.  As of Thursday, February 14th, the administration had proposed a plan to work with states to provide preschool education for four-year-olds from low- to moderate-income families.  In 2010-2011, 28% of four-year-olds in the U.S. were enrolled in state-financed programs (note that this number would not include private preschool programs, nor would it recognize the number of children in home-based care).  The President’s plan would expand existing programs, such as HeadStart, and work to provide matching funds for state-level early childhood initiatives.

Certainly this is not the first time universal early childhood education has been proposed.  As with all education initiatives, critics and supporters abound.  Some argue that a government Early Childhood Education (ECE) programs of this kind lead to wasted tax dollars.  Others argue that the benefits of ECE disappear by third grade and that HeadStart has been overwhelmingly unsuccessful.  Supporters suggest that extending educational opportunity down would improve test scores and help mitigate the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income students.  Further, they look to other countries around the world, particularly those in the OECD, and point to the success of their early childhood education programs.

Given that rhetoric surrounding the expansion of ECE is often caught up in larger conversations about test scores and cross-country comparisons (in the form of PISA scores, among other things) how does the U.S. compare with other countries around the world?  What does Early Childhood Education look like in more “successful” countries?  Finally, what should “quality” ECE look like?

According to the OECD, around 30% of children under age three are enrolled in formal child care facilities.  In Denmark, the Netherlands, Iceland, Norway, and Korea over 50% of children under age three participate in ECE.  By age three, the average enrollment in formal ECE rises to 63% on average.  In France, Belgium, Spain, Denmark, Iceland, Italy, and Norway, over 90% of three-year-olds participate in ECE.  In both of these measures, when compared to other OECD countries, the United States is below average (at 28-30% enrollment for children under age three, depending on who is measuring; and at approximately 35% enrollment for three-year-olds).

By age five, the point at which some states require students to enroll in Kindergarten, the United States still lags behind other OECD countries.  In the majority of OECD countries, enrollment rates at age five exceed 90%.  The only countries that do not fall into this category are: Slovenia, Denmark, Chile, the Slovak Republic, the U.S., Poland, Finland, and Turkey.  What can be inferred from these data is that children in the United States, on average, start formal education programming later than most other OECD countries.  This does not mean, however, that U.S. children are not cared for or do not receive any form of formal early childhood care (certainly there are – hopefully – no two-year-olds watching themselves), but that the U.S. has a history of non-formal and/or home-based childcare.

Let’s turn our attention to the next questions: what exactly is ECE?  What might it look like?  According to UNICEF, ECE programs should address the following:

When well nurtured and cared for in their earliest years, children are more likely to survive, to grow in a healthy way, to have less disease and fewer illnesses, and to develop thinking, language, emotional and social skills.  Yet over 200 million children under five worldwide do not receive the appropriate care and support to become physically healthy, mentally alert and emotionally secure.  Because of poor health, under nutrition and poor learning environments that fail to provide enough responsive stimulation and nurturance, too many children around the world are entering school late, performing poorly at school and not achieving their full potential…The underlying cause of all this is poverty.

Based on constructions of childhood as a universal, biological, developmental period in one’s life, UNICEF considers the first three years of life to be of critical importance.  Ensuring that children reach developmental benchmarks in terms of physical, intellectual, and emotional development will, assumedly, help them perform better in schools.

What exactly this entails can be somewhat fuzzy and highly contextual.  However, there seems to be a general assumption in ECE literature that children must meet certain specific “benchmarks” of development to prepare them, among other things, for formal education, as well as for participation in the wider culture.  (For more discussion of culturally-specific early childhood education, I highly recommend Preschool in Three Cultures and Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited both of which were, in part, written by Joseph Tobin, an anthropologist and early childhood specialist.)

Bringing this back to President Obama’s proposal, I still have several remaining questions.  What would the cost of ECE be to participants?  Since part of the purpose is to provide care for low- and moderate-income families, will the costs be low enough such that parents are able to afford it as compared to alternatives, such as home-based care?  How does President Obama plan to encourage parents to participate, particularly as there is not a strong history of participation in ECE programs in the U.S.?  Moreover, if programs target low- or moderate-income families, what steps will be taken to ensure that these programs are not as stratified as formal education programs tend to be?

What questions or thoughts do you have about Early Childhood Education?

Photo via UNESCO

How Children Learn

If a picture is worth a thousand words (or so the saying goes), what might pictures of schooling from around the world tell us?  How are images used (either implicitly or explicitly) to shape our constructions of education in a particular place?  British photographer Julian Germain has been working since 2004 to capture school life, and has recently published a book entitled Classroom Portraits, 2004-2012.  All together, Germain has taken more than 450 photographs in 20 different countries.  Here are some of my favorites.  (You can see more photographs here.)

Taiwanese Kindergarten

Taiwanese Kindergarten

Nigerian Secondary School

Nigerian Secondary School

Brazilian Elementary School

Brazilian Elementary School

Saudi Arabian Kindergarten

Saudi Arabian Kindergarten

Whenever I look at images like these I inevitably compare it to my own experiences teaching first grade in rural Louisiana or second grade in North Africa.  I think, what would my own classroom have looked like if someone came by one day?  Personal biases and reflections notwithstanding, I also think about what I see and what I do not see.  How are the students oriented?  Are they in a group?  Or facing the teacher?  Why might that be?  What types of materials and supplies are there available to the students (at least in the picture)?  How are students dressed?  Is there a uniform?  What purpose might that uniform (or lack of uniform) have?  What is the racial, ethnic, religious, gendered composition of the classroom (at least in this moment)?  Why did the photographer choose these schools or classrooms, as opposed to others?  What purpose might he have had in these choices?  What is the “absent presence”?

What do you think about when you see photos of other schools?

Childhood in Context

2013 Family World Map

Photo: 2013 World Family Map

A common topic within the field of education is the effect of family on a student’s academic achievement.  Child Trends recently released its “2013 World Family Map”.  The report examines family structures, socioeconomics, process, and culture in several countries around the world–including China, Turkey, Kenya, Canada, France, and the United States–to represent high-, middle-, and low-income countries.  Although the report does not examine education directly, it does look at children’s lives in the context of their families.  One particular essay examines the influence the number of parents and siblings has on a child:

Prior research–mostly on the US and Europe–suggests that children who grow up without one or both parents in the household are at risk for a host of negative educational outcomes.  This essay… [asks] the following questions: How does living with one parent or neither parent compare with living with two parents on a range of educational outcomes…?

Interestingly, the report found that the positive effects of living with two parents were less consistent in the low-income countries studied.  Unlike prior research conducted in the US and Europe, in some countries having fewer parents did not always correlate with lower educational achievement.  Although this research was conducted at the national level (a unit of analysis often critiqued by Comparative Education scholars), these findings trouble the notion that living with one parent, or no parents, is always a disadvantage.  Extended family involvement, parental involvement and relationship quality, and other family-related factors also play a role in shaping a child’s educational achievements.