Educational Historian Beatty Hones Focus on Compensatory Education

July 31, 2012

Barbara Beatty, professor and chair of Wellesley’s Education Department, is a featured editor and author for the current issue of the Teachers College Record (TCR), a leading journal of research, analysis, and commentary in the field of education published since 1900. The special issue, “Rethinking Compensatory Education,” aims to spark new discussion about how to help children living in poverty succeed in school. 

In a video for The Voice, a series hosted on TCR’s website, Professor Beatty explains that compensatory education is “the idea that schools could compensate for the educational disadvantages” of poor children. 

While initially accepted and viewed by researchers and activists as a solution to educational and social inequality, in the late 1960s compensatory education became controversial and the research highly politicized due to several factors. One major source of controversy was the discourse of compensatory education and “disadvantaged children,” including troubling language around “cultural deprivation” that stereotyped children.

Beatty acknowledges that stereotyping is an ever-present danger, and that it is still difficult to talk about the ways that culture and poverty may affect some children’s progress in school. She explains, “As historians, we think that providing fresh perspectives on how the discourse of the ‘disadvantaged child’ was constructed, evolved, and perceived in the past may provide fresh insights for the future.”

In addition to the criticism of the discourse, many questioned whether compensatory education would ever work. According to Beatty’s introduction to the special issue, just one year after Title I was enacted to ensure that all children have a fair and equal opportunity to obtain high-quality education, the 1966 Equality of Education Opportunity Survey, known as the Coleman Report, was released and came to be perceived as proof of the inefficacy of compensatory education. But despite this widely-held perception, Coleman’s survey found four factors that made a difference: effective schools; teacher quality; students’ personal aspirations; and peer influence.

Many experts, including Beatty, argue that due to large cuts in domestic funding, prompted in part by the Vietnam War, compensatory education programs never received the level of financial support that the planners had hoped for. According to Beatty and other contributors to the issue, compensatory education “never got to scale. We do not know what would have happened if it had.” 

Beatty, who taught as a kindergarten teacher in the Boston Public Schools from 1968 to 1972, believes that today is an important time to reexamine the history of these programs, which might have been more effective if they had received stable funding. She said, “With the deep cuts to education programs in the U.S. today, I think it’s critical to look back to the 1960s and early 1970s and rethink these questions around how to help underserved children and schools, as well as take a closer look at the effects of education policy and politics.”

Beatty further elaborated in her introduction: “With rapid changes in policies toward ‘failing’ schools and ‘failing’ teachers, and No Child Left Behind up for reauthorization, now would seem an opportune moment to rethink the legacy of compensatory education…. We need to find middle ground where we can get beyond competing discourses and pool our rapidly dwindling resources to do what we can do to prevent children in the 21st century from failing in school.”

In addition to editing the special issue, Beatty authored two articles: the introductory piece, “Rethinking Compensatory Education: Historical Perspectives on Race, Class, Culture, Language, and the Discourse of the ‘Disadvantaged Child’” and “The Debate over the Young ‘Disadvantaged Child’: Preschool Intervention, Developmental Psychology, and Compensatory Education in the 1960s and Early 1970s,” an article on preschool intervention and the debate over the young "disadvantaged child." Beatty also co-wrote an article with Ed Zigler, known as the father of Head Start and one of the nation’s most influential developmental psychologists. The article examines a key juncture in Head Start's history in 1970 when Zigler helped save the program from being shut down.

The full text of these articles are available online (subscription required) from the Teacher College Record.