Compensatory Education for All?

by Ruby Takanishi - 2012

A commentary on the special issue.

Recently, I attended the Broadway revival of the musical “Hair,” about the counterculture youth movement during the mid to late sixties. It was an odd and emotional experience to see an account from a period of which I was a part. What did I think about that experience at this point in my life?

I mention “Hair” because I have the similar challenge of being asked to comment on a collection of outstanding articles describing a compensatory education movement that, while originating earlier in the twentieth century, was most prominent during the sixties and seventies. That period represents the beginning and the core concern of my entire professional life: How does the United States, with its governance systems, values, and policies, seek to reduce disparities in the educational outcomes among American children? That concern remains a persistent American dilemma.

I began my professional career as a developmental psychologist, deeply inspired by the early promise of Head Start and by the experimental programs that inspired Head Start’s large-scale implementation in the summer of 1965. As a graduate student, Robert Hess, whose research Barbara Beatty describes in her article,1 was my advisor. I was, like most in my field, aware of the early evaluations of Head Start and the controversies they generated. I met Marcus Foster, whose leadership John Spencer describes in his article,2 while serving on a committee for the research and development center on teaching in low-income schools at Stanford University. As an assistant professor at UCLA, I started a mentoring relationship with Edward F. Zigler, a critical player in the Head Start wars, which continues.

I disclose these professional relationships because I cannot be totally objective in reflecting on these insightful articles. But to the extent that life experiences matter, I have some thoughts to share about the last 40 years of efforts to level the education playing field for low-income children of color, by whatever terms we might use for this crucial enterprise.


Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from Boston, stated, “All politics is local.” He could say the same thing about how education is governed in the United States. While there are federal laws, states are the key funders and players in the quality of education that children receive, and even the states bow to local, district control. As a result, within districts, schools vary; within schools, even classrooms in the same grades vary.

This situation is not likely to change any time soon; in fact, any movement toward more centralized control does not align with current forces to reduce the role of any level of government, the recent movement toward voluntary national standards notwithstanding.

This education governance structure makes it very difficult to aspire to national or even statewide changes in the effective education of low-income children who are not prepared for schooling. There will always be school districts, both large and small, and there will always be schools that demonstrate that they effectively educate children. To expect that even at the state level is daunting. So what can we reasonably expect for the very large numbers of children at risk for educational underachievement, given the structures under which American education continues to operate?

What the articles show is that there will always be schools or even districts where children who are otherwise unlikely to succeed can be well educated. But then, as well as now, such schools and districts are highly dependent on extraordinary leaders with vision and courage who can inspire other educators in their schools to have high expectations for children and their families and provide the school organization and instructional regimes that support deep learning. Narrowing the achievement gap for American children will continue to depend heavily on attending schools with such leadership.


As the article by Sylvia Martinez and John Rury illustrates, what a problem is called has consequences.3 What they call terminology becomes a way by which attributions and motivations of the originators are assigned and may reveal the underlying assumptions of those who coin the terms “cultural deprivation” or “disadvantage.” What they do not sufficiently address is how the War on Poverty, with its community empowerment strategies and the ethnic studies movements, came head-to-head with these originally unexamined terms.

At best, the war over words forced the participants to clarify what they meant, what their assumptions were, and what the implications for education reform were. At worse, the debates obscured what remains at stake: understanding the nature of the problem, and based on that understanding, being able to address it with clarity and effectiveness.

What is not as visible as it should be in these articles is the cluster of scholars, including historians of education, who drafted strong arguments about the limits of education reform in the context of economic inequalities.4 They argued that schools could only do so much if these inequalities were not addressed. This line of argument tended to either let schools off the hook or diminish pressures for school accountability.

We are now in a period where the strong demands for school and teacher accountability seem isolated from the conditions and neighborhoods in which low-income children live. Both strategies are needed, but we have not yet found ways to address both at the same time.


Like most developed countries, the United States begins its universal public education system with the first grade. This means that programs or grades that start earlier, such as kindergarten and prekindergarten programs, are discretionary, except in a handful of states. When state budgets tank, these provisions are among the first to go. This also means that these discretionary programs tend to be means-tested or targeted toward specific income groups, such as Head Start, with its stringent requirement that families be at or below the federal poverty line to participate.

Thus, the unfortunate result is that children in compensatory programs—then and now—tend to be segregated by family economic resources and by race from an early age. This is the very time when class and ethnic group contacts can be advantageous, socially as well as cognitively, as they can be when children are older.

The modern-day version is linguistic segregation in classes for English language learner (ELL) students, examples of which Carlos Kevin Blanton describes in his article.5 ELLs already tend to be clustered in schools by income and by ethnic group. Dual language schools can be advantageous for all children: For ELLs, contact with children whose first language is English, and for English speakers, the opportunity to learn a second language to prepare them for a global society can be a win-win situation. Even in districts that are effectively educating ELLs, the separation between that effort and foreign language learning remains.6 So, the stigma of “disadvantage” for children of immigrants whose first language is not English can be strong.


What emerges so significantly in these articles is the issue of which group or groups have access to programs of compensatory education. Given always-limited resources for these programs, and even more so in the foreseeable future, competition for scarce resources is a reality. “Race” continues to be associated with African Americans, although race can also involve Hispanic Latinos with African descent.

Even with the growth of the Hispanic population in the United States in recent decades, the idea that disadvantaged children are African American persists. The creation of the Hispanic caucus of Head Start only occurred in the last decade.

Part of this may be the politics of scarcity. Part of this may be how groups define themselves and access to public funding and support. Even with the increase in Asian American groups in urban areas—some living in poverty and harsh conditions—it is common to refer to groups in need without mentioning this growing population of color. The myth of the model minority—Asian Americans—endures.

These articles remind us that who is considered disadvantaged, who is considered as needing public and private support, is socially and political determined in any historical period. Numbers matter but do not determine how resources are allocated to provide support to move into the mainstream at any given time.


Based on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), the educational achievement levels from 1975 to the present have remained essentially flat. There have been changes in the demographic characteristics of the country, as well as economic and cultural changes. Perhaps we should celebrate that the line has been essentially flat despite these changes?

I would be remiss in concluding this commentary if I did not point out that according to the NAEP, our national report card, only about a third of all children in America are reading at grade level at the end of the third grade. For low-income children from African American, American Indian, and Hispanic/Latino groups, fewer than one-fifth are reading at grade level at the end of third grade. State-based reports indicate that where there are concentrations of Asian immigrants in poverty with low levels of education, the achievement of their children is also low. These achievement levels are worse than when the compensatory education movement described in the articles began.7

What these results mean is that the majority of American children are in need of a better education than they are now experiencing. What does this mean for our schools when the majority of children require a better education than they are now receiving? Compensatory education for all?


1. Barbara Beatty, “The Debate over the Young ‘Disadvantaged Child’: Preschool Intervention, Developmental Psychology, and Compensatory Education in the 1960s and Early 1970s,” in “Rethinking Compensatory Education: Historical Perspectives on Race, Class, Culture, Language, and the Discourse of the ‘Disadvantaged Child,’” ed. Barbara Beatty, special issue, Teachers College Record 114, no. 6.

2. John P. Spencer, “From ‘Cultural Deprivation’ to Cultural Capital: The Roots and Continued Relevance of Compensatory Education,” in “Rethinking Compensatory Education: Historical Perspectives on Race, Class, Culture, Language, and the Discourse of the ‘Disadvantaged Child,’” ed. Barbara Beatty, special issue, Teachers College Record 114, no. 6.

3. Sylvia L. M. Martinez  and John L. Rury, “From ‘Culturally Deprived’ to ‘At Risk’: The Politics of Popular Expression and Educational Inequality in the United States, 1960–1985,” in “Rethinking Compensatory Education: Historical Perspectives on Race, Class, Culture, Language, and the Discourse of the ‘Disadvantaged Child,’” ed. Barbara Beatty, special issue, Teachers College Record 114, no. 6.

4. M. Katz. The Irony of Early School Reform: Educational Innovation in Mid-Nineteenth Century Massachusetts (New York: Teachers College Press, 2001); R. Rothstein, Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap (New York: Teachers College Press, 2004).

5. Carlos Kevin Blanton, “A Legacy of Neglect: George I. Sánchez, Mexican American Education, and the Ideal of Integration, 1940–1970,” in “Rethinking Compensatory Education: Historical Perspectives on Race, Class, Culture, Language, and the Discourse of the ‘Disadvantaged Child,’” ed. Barbara Beatty, special issue, Teachers College Record 114, no. 6.

6. G. Marietta and E. Brookover, Effectively Educating PreK-3rd English Language Learners (ELLs) in Montgomery County Public Schools, case study (New York: Foundation for Child Development, 2011).

7. National Assessment of Education Progress and National Center for Education Statistics, The Nation’s Report Card: Reading 2009, data file, 2010,

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 114 Number 6, 2012, p. 1-6 ID Number: 16699, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 11:36:00 AM

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