Barbara T. Bowman is a pioneer in the field of early childhood. Throughout her career, she has been an advocate for young children, applying knowledge about child development to her work integrating policy and practice. She is an internationally renowned expert, delivering speeches and lectures and holding local, national, and international leadership positions.
Her understanding of how young children learn and how culture shapes their worldview was forged through her own life, including her time spent at boarding school in Massachusetts, college experience in New York, graduate school education at the University of Chicago, six years living in Iran, one year living in Great Britain, and the last 50 years traveling and working throughout the United States and the world.
In 1965, the federal government took notice of the research indicating the importance of early childhood in human development and launched the Head Start program to provide early education to children from low-income families. Bowman and child psychologist Maria Piers, social worker Lorraine Wallach, and businessman and philanthropist Irving B. Harris founded Erikson Institute to provide leadership training for Head Start teachers, social workers, nurses, and other staff working with young children. At a time when few people were knowledgeable about the early years and had experience working with young children, particularly those from low-income homes, Erikson prepared professionals who would, in turn, prepare others to enter the burgeoning early childhood education field.
“We knew that just being in preschool doesn’t make a difference in later achievement,” Bowman says. “What is learned is what makes the difference.”
As Erikson grew, new research, new theories, and new practices have changed the content of its work. What has not changed is the focus on early childhood and the vision of Bowman and the other founders that all children deserve high-quality care and education. More than ever, Bowman has played a leadership role in local, national, and international arenas, influencing the well-being of children and families around the world.
For eight years, Bowman served as chief officer for early childhood education for the Chicago Public Schools, and during the first term of former President Barack Obama, she served as a consultant to the U.S. Secretary of Education. Today, she works to strengthen programs for young children and families by serving on numerous boards and committees, including the Chicago Public Library and the Great Books Foundation. Additionally, she writes and presents at conferences, addressing issues such as the “cradle to prison pipeline” and the need for systematic changes to ensure equitable opportunities for low-income and minority children.
Throughout Erikson’s history, Bowman has been integral in both its leadership and day-to-day operations, serving at various points as vice president, president, and a board member. Currently, she teaches graduate students as the Irving B. Harris Professor of Child Development and serves as co-principal investigator of a project aimed at improving child-parent centers across three states.
For her, interacting with Erikson students is one of the most rewarding parts of her job. Through her teaching, she challenges students to think critically. Bowman asks her students to reflect on their own culture and life experiences as they try to understand and relate to the children and families different from themselves. Reflection is a core part of an Erikson education and Bowman notes that it is important in helping future early childhood leaders deepen their knowledge and skills.
“I love teaching; I’m a teacher at heart,” Bowman says. “We all learn from each other as we interact, which means my students teach me too.”
- BA, Sarah Lawrence College
- MA in education, University of Chicago
Areas of Expertise
- Cultural influences on development
- Social justice
- Achievement gap
- Parent involvement
- Bowman, B. (2012) Teaching young children well: Implications for 21st century educational policies. In J. Alston (Series Ed.) and D. Slaughter-Defoe, (Vol. Ed.). Messages for educational leadership: The Constance E. Clayton lectures, 1998-2007. New York: Peter Lang Publishers.
- Ray, A and Bowman B. (2012) Low income families and children’s school success. In B. Falks (Ed), Defending Childhood: Keeping the Promise of Early Education. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Bowman, B. (2012). Commentary. Data and development: Revisit the framework. Journal of School Psychology, v. 50, 581-586.
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- Child development and educational excellence, President’s Commission on Excellence in African American Education. Black Child Development Institute, Fall 2015.
- Diverse children and families, Frank Porter Graham, 50th birthday celebration, Fall 2016.
- Since Eager to Learn, University of Minnesota Invited Conference. Spring 2016.
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Related professional experience
- Consultant to the U.S. Secretary of Education, 2009
- Chief officer, Early Childhood Education (prekindergarten and kindergarten), Chicago Public Schools, 2004-2012
- Co-principal investigator, CPC Expansion Project
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