Asa Hilliard: Leader, Citizen of the World, Role Model, Mentor

James C. Young, Professor, Clark Atlanta University, Atlanta, Georgia,
Ernest D. Washington, Professor, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Keywords: African American children, teacher education, Head Start, Pre-school education, Child Development Associate



          August 22, 2012 will be the 78th  birthday of Baffour Amankwatia II, the brilliant Asa G. Hilliard III.  Always leading by example, Dr. Hilliard not only pushed for transformation in education and the social/ behavioral sciences, he was a tireless advocate for African American children and families.  He was charismatic with a special gift for seeing the big picture and inspiring others to join him in transforming that picture into reality. He was a psychologist, skilled in psychometrics, and an expert witness in court cases involving testing. He was our friend and mentor as he was to hundreds of others.  It is imperative that we continue to challenge ourselves to achieve his vision together.  

          Two events and the activities surrounding them are the foundation for our relationship with Dr. Hilliard. The first was our introduction to him in April 1972 when we served on a group convened to discuss the concept of the Child Development Associate (CDA) credential. The second was the creation and evolution of the Black Task Force and subsequently the African American “Think Tank.” 

The Child Development Associate (CDA) Credential

          The concept of the CDA credential originated in the early 1970’s.  The goal of this national initiative was to elevate the quality of all preschool education programs, especially the federally funded Head Start program, by defining and assessing the competencies of classroom teachers.  Head Start emerged out of the Civil Rights movement in the mid 1960’s during a time when social change was in the air.  Education was seen as the lever that would change the lives of children and their families, and Head Start was a radical vehicle to promote this idea.  Black activists were urging students and parents to take control of their education.  Dr. Asa Hilliard was one of the national leaders of this movement.

          Asa addressed in a profound way the following question, “How is it possible to change an educational system that has long taken for granted that Black children were inferior learners and students?”  His answer was to change the teaching force, increase the number of Black teachers and thereby change the complexion of the teaching profession. Through its efforts to hire teachers from the communities it served, the Head Start program, and the Child Development Associate initiative that emerged from it, contributed to the changing face of early childhood education in the 1960s and 1970s. The idea of the Child Development Associate emerged from the Office of Child Development, within what was then known as the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.  Dr. Edward Zigler, a distinguished psychologist on loan from Yale University, along with other prominent educators on staff, began to conceptualize and identity the skills a competent teacher working in Head Start classrooms would demonstrate.  The uniqueness of the CDA program would be a competency-based training program that led to certification.  It defined the quality of preschool teachers training and assessment and replaced the smorgasbord of regional differences affecting Head Start programs at the time.  

          How to develop an alternative system was the challenge? How was “competency” going to be defined?  How was it going to be measured?  What were the dangers of using traditional tools to assess “competency?”

          A major issue, however, and one for which Dr. Asa Hilliard was uniquely prepared, concerned how CDA candidates were going to be assessed or measured to determine competency.  Those responsible for developing the CDA credential identified preschool teacher competencies, and work groups moved forward to address implementation questions.  There was no model in place to determine how CDA candidates would be assessed, who would be involved in the assessment, or under what conditions the assessment would take place. It was clear from the beginning that this would not be the standard paper and pencil assessment process. A paper and pencil test remained but it was one of several components in the evaluation process.

          Prior to the Child Development Associate credential, classroom teachers in most early childhood programs and child development centers were not required to have specific certification to be employed.  With the advent of the Head Start program, it became clear that the need to have competent classroom personnel involved in the education and development of low-income preschoolers was paramount.  Custodial day care was about to become a thing of the past. The challenge, however, was to design an assessment system that would be fair to the thousands of Black women who were working in early childhood programs and seeking to enhance their career mobility.  The CDA would be a valued credential earned by preschool teachers who demonstrated the highest level of competence in those skills and abilities essential to guiding the young child’s learning and development. However, these were the days of applied behaviorism, a period when paper and pencil assessments were the accepted standard.  The barrier of the culturally biased paper and pencil test was everywhere, and of course the initial discussions of the assessment of CDA candidates revolved around the paper and pencil test. At least that was the initial thinking.

          At its inception, the CDA program was a field-based alternative training and credentialing model. This prototype was a breakthrough accomplishment that recognized and endorsed a portfolio and collaborative approach to assessment.  Prospective candidates were critical actors in defining their own training needs based on an initial evaluation by the assessment team of which the candidate was a member.  The quality of his/her prior experience often affected whether a candidate could demonstrate competency in a particular area.  Documentation of prior education experience and training was recorded and placed in the candidate’s portfolio.  Portfolios provided evidence of how candidates progressed, on the paths toward the core competencies necessary to become a CDA. 

          However, Black educators from around the country convened in Washington, D.C. to take on the task of developing an assessment system for the CDA credential that would go well beyond the traditional methods of assessment. These were the days when there was optimism in the air and the belief that we could positively affect the education of Black children.  Dr. Hilliard was the charismatic leader of this group. He was more confident than anyone that we were going to be successful and create an evaluation system that would redefine early childhood education. This exciting environment is the setting in which we first met Asa.  By unanimous consent he was chosen chair and leader of a group of educators and social scientists that became the Black Advisory Task Force to the Child Development Associate Consortium, based in Washington, D.C.  Eventually this group of scholars conceptualized and developed the “prototype” to assess the competency of preschool teachers seeking CDA certification. The assessment process defined the goals, training and preparation necessary to successfully become an assistant teacher. The Black Task Force decided that assessment of the innovative CDA program had to be different.  Competency and field based became the new approach to preschool teacher assessment.   CDA candidates would receive certification based on their demonstrated performance in working with young children, and not strictly on academic credits. 

The Black Task Force and the African American Think Tank

          All of the final decisions regarding the CDA were influenced profoundly by the work group which came to be known as the Black Task Force.  Space will not allow for a full treatment of the work of the Black Task Force, however a short summary is critical to our reflections about Dr. Asa Hilliard as a leader and visionary.  The Black Task Force members were one of several ethnic “think” groups invited to Washington to “react” to the development and assessment of the CDA program.  Each group made a presentation on the idea of the CDA to the leadership of the Office of Child Development.   In February of 1973, the Black Colloquy was convened.  Participants had been selected following lengthy discussions by consortium board members, representatives from organizations, and other people who were knowledgeable about educators and scholars within the Black community.  Following the colloquy the work group became known as the Black Task Force.

          Members of the Black Task Force included university professors and researchers, deans, department chairs, a CEO from a large urban nonprofit organization, central office personnel from a major school district, and the director of one of the oldest rural day care centers in the U.S.  It was a diverse and very complementary group of experts.  Based on their educational background and professional work experience, each member was requested to write a paper raising concerns and issues relative to the ideas of the CDA. 

          This selected group of African American scholars and professionals were given the opportunity to review the CDA concept and provide feedback.  Within this group there were memories of the “flaws” in the methods and research design for the evaluation of Head Start.  The Westinghouse Report (Westinghouse Learning Corporation and Ohio University, 1969) had just pronounced Head Start a failure and implied the inferiority of Black children.  Memories of the political fallout from the “Westinghouse Study” gave a sense of urgency to the group.  It was within this context that the Black Task Force came into existence. The group constituted itself as The Black Task Force for the CDA – Child Development Associate Consortium.  The consortium itself was composed of thirty-nine (39) national organizations whose primary focus was early childhood education or child development.  The consortium’s direct responsibility was to develop an assessment procedure to award the credential. 

          The Child Development Associate Consortium’s (the administrative organization funded by the National Office of Child Development) executive staff convened a meeting to examine the proposed assessment process. Dr. Hilliard presented the components of the CDA project, i.e. the competency areas and their future implications in a question and answer session. The following questions were posed:

·         Why was there no input from the Black scholars/community leaders during the development and  

          selection phase of the competencies?

·         How should the consortium effectively solicit input from the Black scholars?

·         What are the hazards to the Black community and to Black children in “deficit-model” programming?

          The consortium initially had no plans to consider gathering input from minority groups.  Although some of the groups involved in the early planning had significant minority membership, the consortium had no direct or formal method to solicit their respective views.  The Black Task Force, under Asa’s leadership, helped the executive staff to address the issues raised.  Through an exchange of letters from to the executive director of the consortium, the Black Task Force was established with an ongoing relationship with CDAC.

          Dr. Hilliard’s leadership style was one of advocacy for the project. His leadership style encouraged the national staff of CDAC to build on strengths, rather than taking the negative concepts found in the national and international dialogues about people of color. For example, one paper of the 13 papers written by a task force member focused on the recognition of language from a Black perspective.  Two decades later the issue of “Ebonics” blanketed the news.  Another paper addressed the issue of “pitfalls and problems of assessment without a Black perspective.”  To assess or measure Black children from a “Eurocentric” perspective is a violation of psychometric principles.  These violations contributed to a lack of validity for many instruments used in assessing Black children. The Black Task Force argued that “perspective” could determine success or failure of the CDA in Black communities.  In other words “perspective” must have a cultural context if it is going to make sense in the Black communities. 

          There were numerous intensive work sessions within the group.  There were teams and subcommittees that worked without compensation.  The Task Force put in long hours, giving up weekends to accomplish the work, and it paid off.  These were times before the Internet.  Time was spent reviewing the literature, writing reports, and meeting.  There were hundreds of calls and letters from Dr. Hilliard as he traveled back and forth from the west coast to Washington, D.C., as well as to regional meetings with subcommittees.  Task Force members often spent their own funds to get the task completed.  Dr. Hilliard was a driving force and instrumental in developing, designing, and implementing the collaborative assessment process.

          The Task Force addressed the fact that there was a lack of adequate instruments to measure some of the competencies.  Were all programs alike?  Would there be regional differences?  The application of traditional evaluation did not seem to have a place in the CDA program.  The Black Task Force raised these and other concerns, including the proposal that nontraditional means of assessment be included in the process.  Task Force members insisted that children, especially African Americans, have competent, caring teachers committed to the growth of each child and the community as well.

          The Black Task Force conceived of a process known as “Collaborative Assessment.”   The assessment took place in a prospective CDA candidate’s center, and the candidate participated actively in the process.  She/he also developed a portfolio demonstrating the development of the competency.  Each candidate also had a community assessment team.  The team worked with the candidate providing continuous feedback on her progress.  As she/he demonstrated proficiency relative to the defined competencies, the data or information was compiled in the portfolio.  When the candidate, in collaboration with the assessment team, made the decision the candidate was ready for assessment, arrangements were made to have the assessment take place in her place of employment.

          Under Dr. Asa Hilliard’s leadership, the Black Task Force embodied the spirit of a process that redefined Head Start and early childhood education.  The framing of the “prototype” for the assessment system evolved from the individual position papers written by members of the group. His intellectual and confident leadership added much to what unfolded as the group worked collaboratively to redefine the assessment of teaching.   Collectively, the Black Task Force developed a model that was unprecedented in assessing and measuring the competency of prospective teachers of young children.

          Today there are more than 250,000 certified CDAs in Head Start centers and other childcare settings throughout the United States.  Each year through renewal or new successful applicants, thousands of CDAs are credentialed. Many traditional teacher education programs have adopted many of the innovative ideas from the Child Development Associate program.  Portfolios are now a standard component of the teacher preparation process.  Preservice teachers are spending many more hours of in the field.  Observation of candidates functioning in the real world is now standard practice. 

          In conclusion, as African American educators we often wonder what difference there would have been in teacher education if the Black Task Force had the research support to take on initiatives in urban areas.  Over the past four decades major funding for research and evaluation projects on African American children were awarded to TWIs – traditional white institutions.  They became “experts” with no track record of success in the education of African American children.  Research emerging out of the work of the Black Task Force might have taken early childhood education in the African American community in a much different direction.  While the literature continues to ignore the significant contribution made by this group of African American scholars to the discipline of early childhood education, credit for the prototype of the national assessment system must be given to the work and leadership of the Black Task Force and the leadership of Dr. Asa G. Hilliard III.



The Child Development Associate Consortium (CDAC). (1973). Report on the black colloquy. Washington, DC:  Publication No. 2.0674-1.

The Child Development Associate Consortium (CDAC). (1974). Collaborative assessment: A position by the black advisory task force. Washington, DC: Publication No.  2.0874-1.

Westinghouse Learning Corporation and Ohio University. (1969). The impact of Head Start: An evaluation of the effects of Head Start on children’s cognitive and affective development (Vols. 1 and 2, Report to the Office of Economic Opportunity). Athens, OH: Author.