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Children of the Dispossessed: Far-West Preschoolers 30 Years On

reviewed by Elizabeth Graue - 2001

coverTitle: Children of the Dispossessed: Far-West Preschoolers 30 Years On
Author(s): Barry Nurcombe, Philip De Lacey, Susan-Lee Walker
Publisher: ABLEX Publishing Company, Westport, CT
ISBN: 1567504205, Pages: 305, Year: 1999
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Children of the Dispossessed: Far-West Preschoolers 30 Years On (2nd Edition) by Barry Nurcombe, Philip de Lacey, and Susan-Lee Walker tells a story of research on early intervention. Originally published by Nurcombe in 1976, it has re-entered the market with additions from the second and third authors for a new audience. It can be seen as an historical text that documents the efforts of a small group of people to form and run a preschool program in the Australian outback in the early 1970’s. Initially conceived to increase the achievement of Aboriginal children, it developed into an integrated program that served across the community. Designed in consultation with community members, it was an experiment-in-process, linking educational practice with empirical research on early education. Contrasting programs with varying structure and teacher direction, the findings indicate that traditional programs of early education were less effective in promoting affective, language, cognitive and perceptual motor growth than carefully planned, more direct instruction. A structured program, modeled after Bereiter-Engelman's DISTAR, produced larger gains in achievement than a semistructured program based on Piagetian principles, which, in turn, had higher test scores than a traditional program of child-centered instruction. A home-school liaison component was added to the program in its fourth year. The careful design of this project is a strength as are its well-articulated theory and method. It locates these findings in cultural and historical contexts of Australia’s indigenous people, expanding the universalizing readings of development popular at that time. The thirty year follow-up profiles students, staff, and families anecdotally to illustrate long-term outcomes of the program at the individual and community levels.

It is also historical in its theoretical analyses of the construct of IQ, the notion of cultural deprivation/disadvantage/difference that catalyzed early compensatory programs, and the empirical analysis of the potential of early education. Nurcombe reviews and critiques these literatures, pulling together authors who are rarely discussed in a single volume. These reviews locate foundational work in early education and are an important explication of empirical research that contests knee jerk allegiance to traditional child centered pedagogy with young children.

In choosing to meld the original book and add new chapters, the authors could have provided us with a multilevel text that not only updated the analysis and outcomes but also analyzed the conceptual advances over time. Instead, they leave the conceptual issues firmly situated in the early 70’s. The resulting book joins conversations about early intervention without taking advantage of the other voices that have enriched our thought in the meantime. For example, direct instruction and constructivism heavily influence the contrasted programs. This makes sense, given their prominence in the 60’s and 70’s. Little mention is made of the incredible influence of social constructivist theory and research or of the multicultural critiques of methods derived from social constructivism.

The original text points to the problems of racial essentializing and the need to conceptualize rural Aborigines differently from urban African-Americans. This was quite forward looking at the time of the first publication. However, the second edition misses the chance to build on the contributions of post-colonial thought (particularly that generated by indigenous Australians) or of anthropologists of education who have continued the evolution of theorizing beyond cultural deprivation .

Finally, the authors remain locked in a particular view of cognition and its link to measurement. They take as self-evident the power of standardized measures such as the PPVT, ITPA, or WPPSI to portray the effects of compensatory education programs. While these measures surely give us some kind of information, the relationship between outcomes on these measures and program type may well be more a matter of epistemological alignment than of treatment efficacy. With behaviorist thought forming the framework of much psychometric work , it is small surprise that the tested outcomes are higher for a structured program. This promotes a powerful circularity in which outcomes tell more about the philosophy of curriculum and measurement than they do about changing the educational trajectory of individual students.

Children of the Dispossessed is a complex and curious book. It looks forward, from a period that is long ago. It contributes to our historical understanding of the debates in early intervention. It provides eloquent critiques of many constructs that powered the reforms of the War on Poverty. But the authors missed a chance in doing a second addition by not linking Nurcombe’s early work to the advances made in the latter part of the 20th century. This diminishes its contribution to reform in early education.



Shepard, L. (1991). Psychometricians beliefs about learning. Educational Researcher, 20, 2-16.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 103 Number 1, 2001, p. 32-34
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10570, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 1:04:31 PM

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About the Author
  • Elizabeth Graue
    University of Wisconsin, Madison
    E-mail Author
    Elizabeth M. Graue is a Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. Her areas of interest are: readiness, academic redshirting, kindergarten practices, assessment, qualitative research methods, and home-school relations. Sample recent publications include: Ready for What? Constructing Meanings of Readiness for Kindergarten (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993) and Studying Children in Context: Theories, Methods & Ethics (with D.J. Walsh) (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1998).
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