by José L. Rodríguez • IDRA Newsletter • June- July 2001

Jose L. RodriguezSeptember 2000 marked the 50-year anniversary of Dr. José A. Cárdenas’ life as a professional educator. Immediately after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 1950, Dr. Cárdenas started as a science teacher in the Laredo Public Schools. After a two-year stint in the U.S. Army, he resumed his teaching career in the Edgewood Independent School District (ISD) in San Antonio.

Additional classroom teaching was soon augmented by various supervisory and administrative positions leading to the superintendency of the district from 1969 to 1973. Dr. Cárdenas’ work in public schools was supplemented by many years of full- and part-time college teaching and almost 30 years in educational research and development.

In 1973, Dr. Cárdenas resigned as superintendent and founded the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) (formerly Texans for Educational Excellence). IDRA was founded to undertake school finance reform advocacy and now works with people to create self-renewing schools that value and empower all children, families and communities.

IDRA celebrates these 50 years of contributions to the improvement of educational opportunities for children with a series of conversations with Dr. Cárdenas and members of the IDRA staff published in the IDRA Newsletter. In this issue’s conversation with Dr. Cárdenas, interviewer, José L. Rodríguez, focuses on early childhood education.

In your book, “Multicultural Education: A Generation of Advocacy,” you state that IDRA was involved with the legislation for the establishment of preschool programs in Texas public schools. Unfortunately, implementation of such programs stressed academic content rather than the child development emphasis of HeadStart programs. What is wrong with that?

J.A.C.: If we look at the basic theory of learning, we see several things that are essential to a learning situation. The first essential is pre-requisite learnings; the second is successful performance; the third is immediate, strong reinforcement; and the fourth, small increments of difficulty.

This is perhaps a behaviorist approach to learning, but the various theories are all similar when it comes to what makes up a learning situation. One of the reasons economically-disadvantaged, minority, immigrant and migrant children often do poorly in school is because they do not have the pre-requisite learning to succeed in an English-language-based learning situation.

The language of instruction may be missing, or for a variety of reasons students may have different experiences than those commonly found in middle-class homes. School curriculum is middle-class-oriented. When some students do not have the pre-requisite skills for a specific learning situation, it is very difficult for them to learn. This accounts for much of the under-performance of students from disadvantaged and minority populations.

One of the reasons for the implementation of the HeadStart and other early childhood education programs in Texas was to provide pre-requisite skills so that the student who undertakes a basic skill such as reading at the age of six, has already mastered the language, words and concepts involved in this learning situation.

These prerequisite skills are commonly present by the age of six in middle-class homes, so the purpose of the early childhood education programs is to provide experiences similar to those of middle-class children to make sure that children from economically-disadvantaged homes have these prerequisite skills.

What frequently happens in early childhood education programs is that the curriculum of the first grade is pushed down and offered at an earlier age. As a result, the prerequisite skills expected at the age of six are not developed and poor performance and failure become even more common occurrences.

In spite of the unsoundness of such a methodology, early childhood education teachers are often under strong pressure from other teachers and school administrators to teach academic skills rather than the development of prerequisite skills.

I anticipated this in 1969 during the design of the Edgewood Independent School District (ISD) Model Cities Early Childhood Education Program and design of the José A. Cárdenas Early Childhood Center. I spotted the need to reduce the pressure from the regular program to have early childhood education teachers do premature teaching of reading, arithmetic and other academic skills.

So instead of having a developmental program to prepare students to be ready to learn, what educators are doing is giving academic learning to students at an earlier age when they are even less ready to learn.

School districts are starting three-year-old student programs in their schools and treating these programs like pre-kindergarten programs. Are these programs beneficial because they are preparing students for schools? Should a three-year-old be in an early childhood education-type of program? Where do you think the state is going with such an early start?

It amazes me that the state would promote this. It is inconceivable that increasing the prospects of failure can be expected to lead to future success. Success breeds success; failure breeds failure.

Students in pre-school programs at the age of three should be developing the prerequisite skills that will reduce the chance of failure and enhance the chance of success in the learning of academic skills at a subsequent age.

Does the state want this early a start to improve student performance on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS)?

J.A.C.: The state wants students to learn TAAS material earlier. The school and state should realize that sometimes patience is very profitable. Students allowed to develop prerequisite skills can and will become better learners. Learning will become easier at the ages of six through nine years with a foundation for learning and the elimination of early failure.

Pressure for improved performance on the TAAS leads to the introduction of content material at an earlier age. I believe that the basic tenet is that repetition rather than preparedness for the TAAS is the key to learning. It is bad enough that the politicians do not understand this, but the thought that educational administrators and elementary school teachers seem so unaware of the detriments of attempts at premature learning worry a lot of members of our profession.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) pre-kindergarten guidelines have caused some concern among teachers because they stress academic guidelines. They are results of the TPRI and Tejas Lee Reading Inventory, the reading inventory given to pre-kindergarten, first and second grade students. How might someone who is teaching children at the pre-kindergarten level start a program to prepare children to take the test?

J.A.C.: Academic skills come before the test which comes before prerequisite learning.

We know that in reading there are such things as oral language, right-to-left eye movement, audio discrimination, visual discrimination and the acquisition of context clues as skills necessary for successful mastery of reading.

These prerequisite skills must be mastered and it is incumbent upon the teacher to determine that such skills are present in order to enhance the chance of success and reduce the threat of failure.

It is ironic that students from middle-class homes are given six years to master prerequisite skills and then introduced to reading, but we are taking non-middle-class students and attempting to teach basic skills at the age of three. It seems that in compensatory education we are moving in the wrong direction and doing the wrong things.

The José A. Cárdenas Early Childhood Education Center utilizes the seven fundamental skills for well-rounded learning: imagination, creative thinking, observation, cooperation, discrimination, living ethically and a sense of beauty. When did you see the importance of developing such a center?

J.A.C.: It had been a dream of mine since working for the Southwest Education Development Laboratory (SEDL) when I prepared a book on the early development of Mexican-American children.

This book formed the basis for the Model Cities Program that SEDL developed. But, unfortunately, Edgewood ISD did not like the program and did not accept the proposal that I wrote. As luck would have it, the superintendent quit, and I was selected as superintendent. I had no trouble passing it through the Model Cities Program committee, and we had no trouble implementing the program.

Some teachers had negative perceptions. I saw it as play rather than as the developmental activities that we have been discussing. I hired an early childhood education specialist to run the program and was able to acquire all the necessary funds.

Community people and early childhood staff did much of the conceptualizing of the building. Richard Moore, a very creative architect took the input from the early childhood education staff, the community and myself and created this unique building. It is especially designed for early childhood education, and it includes many provisions for research, curriculum development and teacher training. The building emphasizes deinstitutionalization. It was such a unique facility that people from all over the world came to see it.

Is there some research on what happens when students move from early childhood education into mainstream schools?

J.A.C.: There is no sufficiently good research. That was one of my shortcomings; I never had enough money to conduct enough research when I was with Edgewood ISD. That is why with IDRA I insisted that adequate resources be assigned to research and evaluation. We knew that the children were doing very well, it was subjective, but we never had the resources to confirm what we knew about how well the children were performing. A lot of our information was based on case studies. I regretted that I did not make a bigger effort to show that not only did the Cárdenas Center look better and was a happy place, but also that more learning was taking place.

I would imagine that children in the José Cárdenas Center have astounding growth while participating in the program. I fear that when they go back to their elementary schools within two or three years all that growth is lost if the programs are not continued. After three years in regular school you may not be able to tell the difference.

Why is that? What is the difference in the curriculum?

J.A.C.: The school is not a neutral instrument in the education of children. It can be both a positive and a negative influence. Positive perceptions of self, that a successful learner would have, can be knocked down in favor of negative perceptions of self. Acquisition of skills can be slowed down to lose the advantage gained in an early childhood education program.

Why aren’t there any more centers like the Cárdenas Center in Edgewood ISD?

J.A.C.: They have the early childhood education program in the regular schools as part of the instructional program. Some principals know little about early childhood education and make little effort to provide an adequate developmental program. As mentioned earlier, they find themselves under strong pressure to begin the preparation for TAAS testing. I have heard some excuses for the failure to separate early childhood from the regular school program.

I have heard school officials state that bus transportation to a separate site is too dangerous, but I do not believe that has to be so. The Cárdenas Center transported children ages three to five-years-old for four years while I was there without a single accident or detrimental incident. There are many school districts in Texas in which all preschool age children are transported by the district. The bulk of the children in the United States are transported to their schools.

You have been in education for 50 years. What major differences have you seen from when you started to the present?

J.A.C.: Looking back there was no early childhood education when I started. There was kindergarten, but it was more custodial than educational. In fact there was criticism about the Edgewood ISD program spending so much on early childhood education that could have been spent on other programs that were expected to produce a more direct impact. But the results as indicated by subsequent evaluation and the curricular gains have lasted longer than many of the effects of other activities that were recommended at the time.

Do you see any methods of teaching that were prevalent 20 years ago reappearing now? For example, when I started school, phonics was taught, then done away with, and now it is back.

J.A.C.: Educators go from one extreme to the other. I do not know why we have this argument about phonics. Phonics is and has always been a part of a reading program. On the other hand, it does not produce the same level of results as it would in languages that are more structured and phonetically consistent than English.

Phonetic approaches to reading are much more successful in languages that use 26 letters in the alphabet to represent 26 phonetic sounds. English uses 26 letters to represent almost 50 sounds and simply does not lend itself to an exclusive phonetic approach.

Not enough money is spent on research and development to determine the benefits of the various methodologies and programs. In addition, there are a lot of myths in education, that have been successfully challenged for years and years, which are still accepted as gospel.

For example, the belief that retention in-grade is an effective way of making students perform better is a myth. Retention is a terrible approach to under-performance; it makes students perform worse. The evidence has been there consistently since I was a student 50 years ago, but the myth is still there.

We hear arguments about new concepts, such as that the TAAS test is a huge motivator for children in the early years, because they know they have to pass the TAAS to graduate. We have known, as educators, or should know as educators that in learning situations, reinforcement has to be strong and immediate.

B.F. Skinner demonstrated that a few seconds delay in reinforcement could result in a substantial loss of learning. To say to a six-year-old student, “You are going to have to study really hard to pass a test 10 years from now,– has little, if any, motivational value.

What would you say to a principal who would ask teachers to retain early childhood education students?

J.A.C.: I would point out, that learning takes many years and students grow individually. Some are ready to learn parts of the curriculum at an early age, others may take more time. Development varies so much for different children that I would not even consider retention until after the third or fourth grades, and then only for a very small portion of the population. Retention can be such a negative experience in terms of personal and family expectations that it can become a psychological barrier for future learning.

Before leaving office San Antonio’s former mayor, Howard Peak, committed $1 million to start the Kindergarten Reading Readiness Initiative. What are your thoughts on the initiative?

J.A.C.: I appreciate the Mayor’s efforts and feel that it could be very helpful to children in the city. I can only hope that the proposed kindergarten program is not a “push down” program trying to get children to learn to read at the age of four or five.

What are your hopes and dreams for the future of early childhood education?

J.A.C.: I hope everyone has an opportunity for a good education. I hope that all the goals that you mentioned will be realized. I hope that all students will have an equal education opportunity. I don’t think that all kids will achieve equally, but the opportunity should be there for everyone. I hope the education system stops wasting resources because of failure to recognize the capabilities of children. I think life would be more beautiful, enjoyable, satisfying, and aesthetically pleasing if people recognized the capabilities of children.

Interviewer’s note: Learning is a life-long journey on which a young child will embark. This journey should be fun and exciting. Preparing a child to learn requires building developmentally-appropriate skills before introducing academic content. Children need to be taught the pre-requisites of learning if we are to see growth and success for all children.

Today, schools across the state are adding three-year-old programs to their campuses, but the curriculum continues to be pushed down. Emphasis on passing the TAAS has trickled down to pre-kindergarten classes and in order to see success the curriculum is pushed down.

When I taught at an Early Childhood Education Center, I often felt as if I were not teaching, but playing because I was teaching developmentally-appropriate skills. Once these skills were learned, the children were prepared for academic content. The learning was fun and exciting for the children.

It is amazing to see the faces of children when they discover that they can read and write simple words. Self-discovery only motivates children to love learning. When children love and enjoy learning you have created a successful learning environment and ultimately success for every child.

José A. Cárdenas, Ed.D., is the founder and director emeritus of IDRA. José L. Rodríguez is an education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at

[©2001, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the June- July 2001 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]