©2001 NewFoundations

The Educational Theory of Marian Wright Edelman

Analyst: Sheneka T. Soloman


edited 4/30/14

The mission of the organization is to leave no child behind, and to ensure every child has a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start, and a moral start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.

Marian Wright Edelman is the founder and current president of the Children's Defense Fund (http://www.childrensdefense.org), in Washington, D. C. She has been a proponent for quality early childhood education, a National Head Start Program, and quality moral education as well. She has written three books that will be used to investigate her educational theory.

Theory of Value

Throughout each of her books Marian Wright Edelman runs a thread of what she's sees as paramount in building a foundation of a quality education: moral sense and service. Part Two of her book The Measure of Our Success is entitled Passing on the Legacy of Service. She writes "... extra intellectual and material gifts brought with them the privilege and responsibility of sharing with others less fortunate. In sum, we learned that service is the rent we pay for living." (1992, p.5-6)

Additionally, Mrs. Edelman strongly supports a community effort in taking responsibility for our children; each of her books addresses the need to involve parents, teachers, clergy, community members, and the government in optimizing every child's potential.

She speaks to the goals of education as well. "Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than what you found it." (1992, p.9-10)

Lastly, Edelman plainly lays out the major reasons why we need to invest in our children's education, and what they need to get out of it, "...they need our help to get the education they require to prepare to compete in the world of work, to make sound decisions about when to become parents, to feel valued and valuable and to feel that there is a fair chance to succeed."(1987, p.11)

Theory of Knowledge

While Mrs. Edelman does not speak to the specifics about knowledge, she speaks in her books to the things she knows, those values which were "indoctrinated" into her by her family and community as she grew up. "The adults in our churches and community made children feel valued and important. They took the time and paid attention to us. They struggled to find ways to keep us busy. And while life was often hard and resources scarce, we always knew who we were and that the measure of our worth was inside our heads and hearts and not outside in our possessions or on our backs."(1992, p.5)

Edelman speaks to the myths that sometimes misguide our perceptions, for instance, the differences in race versus socioeconomic factors affecting families. "The American family crisis is not just a black family crisis. Both public and private sector neglect and anti-family policy have contributed to a downward spiral for families and children, black and white. Those who suffer the most are ,of course, the poor." (1987, p.23)

Theory of Human Nature

"'The human child,' Nobel Peace laureate Alva Myrdal said, 'is the greatest miracle of creation. Every single child...is a world of subtle secrets, a personality, a unique occurrence, never to be repeated on earth.' Yet our world and nation too often undermine these individual miracles by words and deeds that divide rather than bring children together and make every child feel that he or she belongs." (1999, p.134)

Edelman sees the human child as what sets us apart from the animals, partly because of the nature of all children but also because of the complex role that our society plays in building them up or tearing them down.

She speaks indirectly to human potential, in saying that children carry on what we are and all that they have learned; "I do not think children can do no wrong. They will do wrong all the time if they are not lovingly cared for, taught right, and disciplined by caring disciplined adults."(1999, p.135)

Theory of Learning

"Children come into the world trusting until they are taught to distrust by adults who cannot be trusted" (1999, p.133); and so goes a litany of statements on how the true nature of children is undermined by certain "teachings".

Edelman makes it abundantly clear that she sees learning as example and imitation. Children will model what they see and will imitate what adults within their community will do. She gives a clear picture of this as she discusses her upbringing in the rural South. "Children were taught...not by sermonizing, but by personal example...that nothing was too lowly to do." (1992, p.4)

Skills and knowledge are acquired by children by how they see adults behave in society, and by their emulating those adult roles.

Theory of Transmission

"It is the responsibility of every adult...especially parents, educators, and religious leaders...to make sure that children hear what we have learned from the lessons of life and to hear to hear over and over that we love them and that they are not alone." (1992, p.15) It is the entire community's responsibility for each and every child to get an education. The responsibility for teaching should be equally shouldered by parents, as well as teachers and by the community that each family resides in. She goes on, "So we need to teach our children by example...not to lazy, to do their homework, to pay attention to detail, to take care and pride in work, to be reliable, and not to wobble and jerk through life."

While this may speak to what is needed in a hidden curriculum, she does not refer to any particular standards for curriculum in schools. What she does support is Head Start Education for every child, to provide a strong basis from which teachers in school can build stronger academic habits. (2001, www.childrendefense.org)

Lastly Edelman believes that those who teach should lead by example. In Lanterns a Memoir of Mentors, she speaks about a situation in which a teacher did not uphold something that was constantly being preached to her in church. She alludes to how this tarnished the memory of this teacher. Children need to have things reaffirmed to them in daily lives; not just in the classroom or church. She reminds readers, "Children look to important adults in their lives for signals about what is right and wrong, and how to interpret people or events that insult and assault their self-image." (1999, p.21-22)

Theory of Society

Society in Edelman's books is referred to as each and every individual who lives, works and plays within the confines of this great nation including the government of our land. She makes reference to the extent of who this encompasses when she writes about why she wrote her 1992 book, "The greatest threat to our national security comes from no external enemy but from the enemy within...in our loss of strong, moral, family, and community values and support. Parent by Parent, youth by youth, voter by voter, professional by professional, congregation by congregation, club by club, community by community, foundation by foundation, corporation by corporation, city by city, county by county, state by state. All Americans must commit personally... to a national crusade of conscience and action that will ensure that no child is left behind." (1992, p.19-20)

This also speaks to all the institutions which are involved in the education of our nation's children. While Edelman agrees that the primary responsibility of children falls on their parents she concludes that no family deals with this "burden" alone, and that our nation should invest heavily in all of its children. (1992, p.33-34)

Theory of Opportunity

Edelman believes that every child regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic background or the like, is entitled to equal education. "The most cost effective way to promote literacy and adequate basic skills is through investments in prevention." While she believes that the targets of these investments need to be the poor and minority groups, Edelman consistently lobbies for National Head Start programs and early education for all children and families. (1992, p86-87)

Theory of Consensus

It can be inferred that Edelman sees disagreement on issues as primarily occurring when parties disagree about the root of the problem. For example,"Adults disagree about the nature of the teen pregnancy problem. Some see it as primarily a moral problem; others as an economic or poverty problem. Some are concerned because of its implications for family development, others because it contributes to school dropout and dependency." (1987, p.51)

Consensus can only be achieved when we can come together as people and are willing to share, to juggle difficult, competing demands, and to make hard sacrifices to take courageous actions to rebuild our families and communities. (1992, p.38)

Lastly, Edelman makes it plain in each of her books that she sees the most important ideas as those which have families, and particularly children at the heart of them.


Edelman, Marian Wright, Families in Peril: An Agenda For Social Change (Mass., Harvard Univ. Press, 1987)

Edelman, Marian Wright, The Measure of Our Success: A letter to My Children & Yours (Boston, Beacon Press, 1992)

Edleman, Marian Wright, Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors (Boston, Beacon Press, 1999)

Children's Defense Fund, http://www.childrensdefense.org, April 7, 2001