Early Childhood Education

Gordon, Ira J. (1923-1978)

 

Ira Gordon is best known for his groundbreaking work in parent education and home visiting. He was a native of New York City and received his advanced education in the city of his birth: his bachelor’s degree from City College of New York and his master’s degree and doctorate from Teacher’s College at Columbia University. He wrote twelve books and cowrote three others. He taught at Kansas State College, the University of Florida, and the University of Maryland. He ended his career at the University of North Carolina in 1978 after moving there in 1977 to become Kenan Professor and Dean of the School of Education.

Dr. Gordon was equally proficient in research, programmatic innovation, public speaking, and social action. He was a pioneer of action research and one of the first university-based psychologists to develop home visiting programs for the educational and social enrichment of infants and toddlers from poor families. His first such effort in that area was the Parent Education Program (PEP). Developed in 1966, PEP was the beginning step in a series of intervention research efforts that engaged paraprofessionals as home visitors to demonstrate home-learning activities to parents (usually the mother) so that they in turn would engage in broadly defined instructional interaction with their children. This series of interventions, which he based on sound developmental theory and research, continued through 1974 and included such variations on PEP as the Early Childhood Stimulation Through Parent Education Program (ECSPEP), the Home Learning Center Approach to Early Stimulation (HLC), Instructional Strategies in Infant Stimulation (ISIS), the Social Roots of Competency Project, and the Effect of Reinforcement on Infant Performance Project.

From its beginning in rural northern Florida, his parent intervention model spread throughout the country. His “Florida Model” influenced the design of the “Follow Through Program,” the “Head Start-Planned Variations Program,” the “Parent Child Centers,” and the “Teacher Corp.” As a frequent consultant to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and private foundations, he helped to turn the nation’s attention to the needs of very young children.

Dr. Gordon was a firm believer in the importance of longitudinal research and with the support of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare organized a group of over fifty researchers involved in early intervention efforts. The group, nicknamed “Upstart” by Irving Lazar, met twice a year for five years in the 1970s. Its members were many of this country’s early intervention pioneers, including Kuno Beller, Bettye Caldwell, Sybille Escalona, Susan Gray, Jerome Kagan, Ronald Lally, Phyllis Levenstein, Howard Moss, Frank Palmer, Earl Schaefer, Jean Watts, David Weikart, and Leon Yarrow. Dr. Gordon worked tirelessly to keep the focus of “Upstart” discussions on the sharing of ideas, strategies, and research that could be used in the service of bettering educational opportunities of children from poor families. His efforts with this group led to the development and funding of the Consortium for Longitudinal Studies, a cluster of carefully designed research studies that provided evidence of the lasting effects of early intervention.

Ira Gordon was a brilliant synthesizer who worked best in a room full of bright creative thinkers. He would take the research reports, theories, guesses, and opinions of his peers and weave them into sophisticated meta-ideas that were more wise than any previously stated, yet inclusive enough of the essence of those thoughts to be immediately accepted by the group. He stands out as one of the first American academicians to harness the power of developmental research as a vehicle for social change. He was dedicated to learning how to assist, and then actually assisting, poor and undereducated parents make life better for their children.

J. Ronald Lally