Building a Strong Village to Promote Black Children’s Excellence: Early Childhood Education and the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans

Topic: Access, Early Childhood, Federal policy, Preschool

The African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” recognizes the importance of supports for parents in raising healthy well-educated children who will succeed in school and life. The two most pressing education and health problems facing Blacks are the achievement gap and the “weathering effect.” Evidence for the achievement gap comes from several national data sources, such as the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS). Evidence for the weathering effect comes from reports highlighting the negative impact of chronic stress on children’s development, including the brain. African American children are more likely than others be exposed to the stresses of poverty including the violence that often afflicts communities with high concentrations of poverty, while having less access to high quality health care and education.   Because the Obama Administration understands the important role that education (and health) plays in children’s future success, the Administration has developed the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.[1]

The White House’s Initiative espouses a P-16 approach to promoting education success for Blacks. The executive order that was established in July 2012 is comprehensive, spanning a vast array of education challenges faced by Blacks such as increasing their access to college on to the recruitment and retention of Black teachers. The Executive Director for the Initiative is David Johns, a former teacher who holds a Master’s degree from the Teachers’ College at Columbia University and who previously served as a senior education policy advisor to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.  Johns holds a Master’s degree from Columbia University. More about the Initiative can be learned by following the Twitter hashtags #AfAmEdChat and #teachthebabies.

In this blog, we discuss those aspects of  the Initiative that particularly pertain to early childhood education, and what the initiative can mean for early childhood education–by focusing on what educational structures are needed to ensure African Americans/Blacks are on the path to success even before they enroll in the K-12 system.

Why Early Education is Key to Building Education Excellence

The National Center for Education Statistics reports Black children attend full-day preschool (also referred to as “preprimary”) programs at higher rates than other racial/ethnic minorities.

One reason for this may be due to Black mothers’ higher workforce participation rate, compared to women of other races. Another reason could be because research finds that early childhood education works for African American children. In fact, the three best known studies (Perry Preschool, Abecedarian, Chicago Parent-Child Programs) were of programs that served predominantly African American children. More recent research finds that African American children benefit from high-quality preschool programs academically and socially. Such evidence leads to two overarching policy recommendations:

  1. invest in continued efforts to support early childhood education because it has proven effective in fostering Black children’s academic and social skills; and
  2. Target additional policy efforts during K-12 to ensure that continue to reduce the achievement gap.

These policy recommendations align with the missions/functions articulated in the Initiative, and therefore, our recommendations rest upon these missions. Below we discuss the research that contributes to the rationale for those most directly related to early childhood education.

Policy Recommendation #1:  Continue Investments in Early Education

  • Mission: Build African American children’s school readiness by enhancing their access to high-quality early learning programs. Overall, when compared to middle-class White children, low-income African Americans’ enrollment in high quality programs is lower. Policy efforts like expanding preschool for all children might facilitate children’s access to high quality early learning programs, especially given that a large portion of African Americans live in households that are at or below 200% of poverty. Given that African Americans are more often enrolled in full time programs, efforts should be made to expand access to, and improve the quality of, full-day programs.

Policy Recommendation #2:  Target Additional Efforts at K-12 to Sustain Early Education Efforts

  • Mission: Decrease the disproportionate number of African American referrals to special education. While African American children make up 17 percent of public school enrollment, they account for 31 percent of students identified as having mental retardation or intellectual disabilities, 28 percent of students labeled as having an emotional disturbance, and 21% of students who have learning disabilities. There is indication that African American children, especially boys, are often referred to special education rather than provided more individualized support for their needs.
  • Mission: Enhance access to effective teachers and school leaders by supporting efforts to recruit, prepare, and retain successful African American teachers and school leaders. A recent study by Iruka and colleagues (2014) shows that the majority of African American boys do well in their transition to kindergarten, but substantial percentage of even those who how early promise suffer declines as they transition into kindergarten.  These children would benefit from individualized support and attention in the early years that would ensure they flourish rather than fall behind.  Studies indicate that one year of low-quality teaching in the early years can have a detrimental impact on children’s later achievement and success.
  • Mission: Foster positive family engagement. Programs that support family engagement should be supported and encouraged. In order to get families and community members involved in a meaningful way, educational programs need to focus on effective family engagement. Iruka, Curenton, and Eke[2] (in press) explain that schools and early education programs must go beyond asking parents to volunteer for field trips and fill out forms. In the White House TweetChat on African American children & early education, one recurring topic was the need for programs to engage in meaningful outreach to families, and empower parents to have a true voice in their child’s education.
  • Mission: Reduce racial isolation and re-segregation of K-12 schools. African American children and families, regardless of income, are likely to live in segregated enclaves, which limit access to high quality employment, schooling, health care, community resources (e.g., parks, libraries) and housing. Children have fewer opportunities for stimulating experiences and individuals, which can limit a child’s imagination and potential to “dream big.” Further, these racially segregated enclaves are likely to expose children and families to violence and other stress factors that impact the child and family well-being. The recent recession, which caused many African American families to lose their homes and, subsequently, their wealth, has led to the de facto re-segregation of elementary schools.
  • Mission: Develop partnerships with public, private, philanthropic, and nonprofit stakeholders to increase children’s readiness for school.  Research shows that part of the achievement gap is due to learning loss in the summer.”  It is paramount that children and families have access to enriching after-school and summer programs to prevent the summer “brain drain,” the decline in learning that occurs during the summer.  In addition because the private child care market serves such a large proportion of young children, policy efforts should be made to promote collaboration between the public and private sectors offering preschool services.

Stephanie Curenton, Ph.D, is Assistant Professor, Rutgers University, Bloustein School of Planning & Public Policy; Adjunct Assistant Professor, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Institute for the Study of Child Development; and a NIEERResearch Fellow.

Iheoma U. Iruka, Ph.D. is Associate Director and Scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute and Associate Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


[1] The White House also has Education Excellence Initiatives for Hispanics, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and American Indian and Alaskan Natives because there is an achievement gap for these ethnic minorities as well.

[2] Iruka, I. U., Curenton, S. M., & Eke, W. A. (in press). Culturally-Responsive, Anti-bias Framework of Expectation, Education, Exploration, and Empowerment (CRAF-E4). San Diego, CA: Elsevier.