Evelyn K. Moore: Overcoming Limitations for Young Learners

April 22, 2021

“We need to give kids a chance to develop before we decide what their limitations are,” Evelyn Moore staunchly maintains. “Many children are very talented, can express themselves well, and know how to make good decisions,” she explains. “But we don’t realize what they can do because they have behavioral issues, or they don’t test well or they’re simply late bloomers. And we don’t have enough patience for children like this.” So, we place them in special education classes, and by doing so we limit their chances of future success. “There’s a tendency to label children,” Moore says, “and once they get a negative label, it follows them for the rest of their lives.”

Too many young Black children are unfairly labeled, Moore came to see as a special education teacher at an elementary school in Roseville, MI. “When I first came along as a teacher in the sixties, there were so many Black kids in special ed classes. And I thought, ‘This doesn’t seem logical,'” she recalls. So, she was excited when a close friend told her about a research project designed to provide high-quality early education to three- and four-year-old Black children who came from low-income homes, had low IQ scores and were considered at high risk for failure in school. “They needed special education teachers, and when they asked me if I wanted to join the project I jumped at the chance.”

In 1962, Moore became the youngest of the four founding teachers in the Perry Preschool Project, a famous program that took place in Ypsilanti, a small city outside of Detroit. The children she taught were part of a study to see if high-quality educational experiences in a child’s early years could raise their IQ scores. And initially it did. Though the children’s scores soon evened out with those of their peers, the Perry research didn’t stop when the initial academic benefit seemed to go away. Nor was IQ the only thing the researchers tracked. Led by Nobel Laureate James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, the Perry researchers also looked at the children’s success in terms of high school graduation rates, job retention, ability to form stable households and physical health. Over time, the Perry preschoolers did better on all these measures than a randomly selected group of their peers who weren’t part of the program. And to this day, Perry has stood as a milestone in anti-bias early education.

One of the keys to the program’s success, as Moore recalls, was the freedom that she and her colleagues had to teach to the children’s strengths. At a time when rote learning was the norm in early childhood settings, Moore and the other Perry teachers were pioneers as they strived to give young learners lots of room to explore and think for themselves. The point was to strike a balance between teacher- and child-directed activities, Moore says. “We didn’t have a set curriculum at the start because we understood that learning could take place without making children sit down in rows and putting them through all sorts of drills. Instead, we did all kinds of experiments. We baked with the children so they could learn textures and shapes. We made Jell-O so they could watch the liquid turning into a solid. And all this got them ready to engage in abstract thinking.”

The Perry Preschool teachers also helped the children learn by spending a lot of time setting up what was going to happen each day. “You can teach children by how you set up the block area and doll corner,” she says. “We planned a lot, so there was intentional thinking, but it wasn’t the drilling type of teaching. Instead, the children learned through active engagement. And teaching like this poses a greater challenge than when you have a worksheet that tells you what to do from day one. Perry gave us a chance to be creative in the classroom.”

Perry also enhanced the children’s chances to learn by having the teachers make weekly home visits. “These home visits are hardly discussed when Perry is written up,” Moore says, “but I think they were a very important part of the program. During the visits, teachers and parents developed relationships and parents became more engaged in teaching their children. We were even able to take parents and children on field trips in our cars to further enrich their lives.”

The Perry teachers were able to develop one-on-one bonds with children and parents because they had three teachers for a class of 25 children. It also helped that the teachers were highly qualified and credentialed. “Of course, all children need competent teachers, but it’s especially crucial for children whose families have fewer resources to give them enriching experiences,” Moore says. “I think these are precisely the students who deserve master teachers. If we want to give these children the advantage they need, we have to give them the best.”

Understanding how children develop and learn is a very important part of being in the classroom, as Moore pointed out in the early 1970s when the Child Development Associate® (CDA) credential was first created. “I was involved with it from the beginning,” she points out, “and was part of the discussion that led it to include academic coursework and allowed CDA students to earn college credits. My fight was as much for the educators as for the children because you have more portability and opportunity if you’re a credentialed teacher.”

And Moore also likes the CDA because it brought opportunity to people who otherwise wouldn’t have had it. “Historically, early childhood education was a white profession and I think one of the great contributions of the CDA was it brought people of color into the field, so children had teachers who looked like them. It opened doors for a diverse population,” and that matters because children learn best from educators who look like them.

Moore’s commitment to supporting children of color also led her to train early educators in Willow Run, MI, one of the lowest-income neighborhoods in the nation. “It had been a thriving place during World War II, when it had been the site of a bomber plane plant that provided thousands of people with jobs. When the war ended, the plant closed and left people without much opportunity or hope for the future,” Moore explains. “When President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in 1964, one of the projects he funded was a child care center in Willow Run. As the center’s director, I used the lessons I’d learned from Perry to train educators so they could help the community’s families and children.”

Then Moore brought her expertise and sense of commitment to Washington, DC, after co-founding the National Black Child Development Institute in 1971. During 38 years in this role, she advocated for universal child care and a wide range of laws affecting child welfare, child care and health, adoption and education. Her advocacy led to programs that included technical assistance for curriculum development and federal funding of child development programs in 45 Black colleges, a recruitment program to provide foster homes for Black children, parental services and testing programs that led to mainstreaming of cognitively challenged students.

“I testified before Congress on practically every child development bill in the seventies,” she recalls, “because I’ve always known we need government involvement—and we need government representatives who value education for all people equally.” Fortunately, there’s now more support for early childhood education, she explains, “and programs like Perry have helped by showing the benefits young children get when you give them a chance to develop. Recent findings of brain science have also made a difference by proving how much learning goes on before age five. And all this has contributed to a better understanding in this country of how important those early years are for children.”

Moore has devoted her life to the conviction that “education from the early years on is the key to a good life.” Now in her retirement she has some time to relax. She’s taking golf lessons, reading fiction and watching her favorite movies, but she’s still involved in her field. “I’ve done some podcasts and interviews,” she says. “I’m still involved with the National Black Child Development Institute and I feel hopeful that one day we won’t have to keep promoting early childhood education. It will be a reality for every child.”

Moore is also optimistic about the future because there are now more people who promote the interests of young children. “In 2018, we had so many women elected to Congress,” she says. “Most of them have children and grandchildren, so they see the value of doing things for young children. Nearly every day, one of our female lawmakers mentions children in a press conference. I also think Head Start and the National Association for the Education for Young Children have brought public attention to the importance of early learning. So, people who say we haven’t made progress aren’t listening. It’s been a long struggle to get to where we are in the early childhood field, but we’ve shown that we have the will to keep changing things for the better.”

Still, there are challenges that remain, she points out. “We need to bring more men into the early childhood field. We need to give salaries to our early childhood teachers that are comparable to those they’d earn in the public schools. We need smaller classrooms, like those we had in Perry, and I think this may happen because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to engage parents in an intensive way. And we need greater investment in the front end of life and early childhood education as a whole.” We must overcome these limitations so more young learners can overcome the limitations they face. And it pays off, as Moore has long known. She and her Perry Preschool colleagues proved that children who receive high-quality early childhood education have healthier, more productive lives.

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