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Strategies to Foster Integration in Early Childhood Education

A teacher and students seated in a circle with hands outstretched toward the center.

Research shows that racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically integrated schools can have important benefits for student learning. While much research has focused on the benefits of integrated K–12 settings, emerging evidence indicates that the benefit of school- and classroom-level diversity may also be significant in early childhood education (ECE).

Integrated education likely benefits children for several reasons:

  • Socioeconomically, racially, and ethnically diverse schools often receive more resources than schools with concentrated poverty, many of which have student bodies that are predominantly Black and Latino/a.
  • Children learn from their peers, and diverse classrooms tend to have children with a wide range of knowledge, skills, and abilities.
  • In diverse classrooms, children can develop positive relationships across lines of difference, which has been found to reduce prejudice.

Despite the positive influence of integrated settings, most ECE programs are remarkably segregated. A study of publicly funded preschools found that nearly half of Black and Latino/a children are taught in racially isolated schools where 90% of students are students of color. Another study found that ECE programs are, on average, 13% more racially segregated than elementary schools and 20% more segregated than high schools. Research has also found ample evidence of socioeconomic segregation in ECE settings, as well as segregation of dual language learners into schools with a majority population of students of color.

Segregation in ECE is driven by patterns of residential segregation as well as policies that govern access to programs. Where publicly funded ECE is available, it is often not universally accessible, and private programs are unaffordable for many families. Most states limit access to subsidized ECE to children from low-income families, and the federal government limits Head Start to children from families with the lowest incomes. As a result, children are often segregated into classrooms and settings by their family’s income.

Strategies for Fostering Integration in ECE Settings

This report explores five policy strategies that foster integration rather than segregation:

  1. Establish universal ECE programs where age is the only requirement, so that family income does not determine where a child can enroll.
  2. Braid public funding or combine funding streams from various sources to enable children from different socioeconomic backgrounds to learn in the same classroom.
  3. Allow tuition-paying families to enroll in public programs while reserving seats for families with low incomes.
  4. Attract families across neighborhoods or district boundaries.
  5. Create two-way dual language immersion programs (programs that offer instruction in two languages).

These strategies can be bolstered by collecting enrollment data—disaggregated by race, ethnicity, language, and socioeconomic status—to help state and local leaders understand the extent to which children are learning in diverse classrooms.

Considerations to Promote Inclusiveness Within Diverse Learning Environments

The strategies examined in this report highlight ways policymakers can enable conditions for children from different socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds to learn together. However, efforts to increase diversity should be coupled with practices that create inclusive learning environments in which all children can thrive:

  • Foster culturally responsive learning environments supported by professional development for teachers.
  • Recruit and retain a diverse staff who can work effectively with diverse children and families.
  • Engage families in ways that meet their needs.

Strategies to Foster Integration in Early Childhood Education by Sara Plasencia and Hanna Melnick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This research was supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation, which also provides core operating support for LPI. Core operating support is provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler Foundation, Skyline Foundation, and MacKenzie Scott. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.