CREDIT: ALLISON SHELLEY FOR AMERICAN EDUCATION
Preschool students listen to a story.

Toddlers are famous for throwing tantrums, stomping their feet and screaming as tears roll down their chubby cheeks. It’s par for the course of life as a preschool teacher, child care worker or parent that you will have to cope with your fair share of developmentally-appropriate misbehavior, including hitting and biting. 

And yet not all small children get the benefit of the doubt when they act up in class or on the playground. Some of them get kicked out of school, perhaps derailing their education. 

That’s one of the unsettling truths exposed in the new report “Creating Equitable Early Learning Environments for Young Boys of Color: Disrupting Disproportionate Outcomes.” A 450-page collaboration between nonprofit research and policy organization WestEd and the California Department of Education that combines moving vignettes with practical tips and scholarly insights, the report aims to raise awareness of disparities in disciplinary practices in early learning and care programs. Since preschool suspensions and expulsions disproportionately impact children of color, research shows, particularly Black boys, this is fundamentally an issue of equity. Overall, Black preschoolers are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended than white preschoolers, according to federal data.

“What I commonly find in early learning and care is a disbelief that bias, racism and hate even exists because we’re talking about very young children, right?,” said Senta Greene, founder and CEO of Full Circle Consulting Systems, which partnered with WestEd on the report. “There’s a mindset that this can’t possibly be true because, after all, these are babies. It’s a tender spot within our profession. Our industry does not understand that the school-to-prison pipeline actually begins in early learning and care. The slope becomes very slippery early on.”

Focusing on the most vulnerable students is a smart strategy, experts say, given how dire the problem is. One sobering fact is that preschool children, who regularly struggle to regulate their big emotions, are expelled at rates three times higher than children in K-12 settings, according to a report from the Children’s Equity Project, a research organization at Arizona State University. Does implicit bias set children of color up to fail?

“The California Department of Education has put a bold stake in the ground with this report, calling out systems of inequity that have persisted for too long for our young boys of color,” said Gina Fromer, CEO of Children’s Council San Francisco. “We cannot expect to improve the outcomes of our early education system without dismantling behaviors, beliefs and practices that have consistently left our tiniest African American community members without the support they need to succeed in kindergarten and beyond.”

The pandemic has raised the stakes even higher, some suggest, undermining the social and emotional stability of many children. Those students most at risk before Covid tend to be the hardest hit now in terms of learning loss, research suggests.

“Although the pandemic has impacted everyone, it has disproportionately affected our student groups that were already vulnerable—and who were made vulnerable due to historic and systemic inequities,” said Superintendent Tony Thurmond in a news release. “We know that Black students—particularly Black boys—are one of the most vulnerable groups.”

In the wake of the pandemic, a time when teacher burnout has spiked, experts say it’s more necessary than ever to expose implicit bias. Raising awareness of the need for race and equity training is the main thrust of the report, which advocates see as a compendium of resources providing guidance for early childhood educators. 

“The development of this book is a courageous act of leadership,” said Joseph Johnson, executive director of the National Center for Urban School Transformation and emeritus dean of the College of Education at San Diego State University. “The book does an excellent job of unpacking many complex, challenging issues. … I believe the authors took great care in trying to tell the truth about the destructive power of exclusionary practices, the role of bias and racism on exclusionary practices, and the need for people at all levels of the system to embrace strategies that can promote change.”

Among the report’s other key recommendations are smaller class sizes and raising pay for early childhood educators. A smaller teacher-to-student ratio would take the pressure off teachers, raising a sense of well-being and lowering stress. The same can be said for raising pay in an industry that’s known for poverty wages. 

Strain has long been endemic to the early childhood education sector. Child care workers, predominantly women of color, are among the lowest-paid workers in the country, experts say. The median hourly pay for a California child care worker in 2019 was $13.43, while preschool teachers earned $16.83 and kindergarten teachers earned $41.86, according to data from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California Berkeley.

It’s important to note that many of these recommendations have been made before, notably in California’s Master Plan for Early Learning and Care, and many advocates suggest it will take a concerted effort to turn bold ideas into a tangible plan of action.

“I hope we will see additional efforts and funding to support ECE professionals to help ensure these recommendations are realized on the ground,” said Stacy Lee, senior managing director for early childhood at Children Now, an advocacy group that contributed to the report. “We also hope to see measures to ensure accountability so that we know for certain (that) young boys of color are indeed engaged, learning and supported well and not experiencing disproportionate bias or racism in any way.” 

These types of best practices may not stick, some experts warn, unless they are also fully integrated into teacher training programs from the start. 

“A report like this, as good as it is, won’t have any effect at all on practice or on preschool expulsions,” said Deborah Stipek, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and an early-education expert. “The effective practices described need to be deeply woven into teacher preparation and professional development. Just saying “do this” doesn’t make it easy.”

Creating more accountability is key, experts say. Tracking the data, including creating dashboards to monitor suspensions and expulsions in the school system, would boost transparency and give educators a more accurate sense of the scope of the problem. Family engagement is another recommendation.

Another concern is that focusing on individual biases may distract from the broad and systemic nature of the issue. Some suggest that standard protocols of classroom management may actually trigger undue punishment.

“I’m not sure that I see the book leading people to grapple with the implicit biases that are ‘baked into’ how we provide early childhood services and education,” said Johnson. “Are individuals reacting to their personal implicit biases when they feel the urge to exclude boys of color who have difficulty staying seated “criss-cross applesauce” style?  Or are individuals reacting more to systemic biases when they feel the urge to exclude children if they think their supervisor will see children’s out-of-seat behavior as an indicator of ineffective teaching?” 

To better connect the philosophical with the practical, Greene is helping develop a series of online tutorials, and an abbreviated version of the reference book is also in progress. Both projects are attempts to make the resources more accessible for time-pressed educators, to heighten a sense of urgency about making early education more egalitarian.

“It’s time to stop postponing issues of equity,” said Greene. “We have the answers now. We know what we need to do. Now we just need to do it. The question is why aren’t we acting on it?

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  1. Wayne Bishop, PhD, Prof. Emeritus, CSULA, Mathematics 3 days ago3 days ago

    The idea that there is a root cause of the infamous Gap is correct but the nature of that root cause is completely misdiagnosed; it’s standard education school stuff. The root cause is deficits already identifiable on Day1 of kindergarten, home and community. Painful as it might be to discuss the issue, there is a substantial vocabulary deficit in low socioeconomic conditions generally and Black communities worst of all; Hispanic is somewhere in … Read More

    The idea that there is a root cause of the infamous Gap is correct but the nature of that root cause is completely misdiagnosed; it’s standard education school stuff. The root cause is deficits already identifiable on Day1 of kindergarten, home and community. Painful as it might be to discuss the issue, there is a substantial vocabulary deficit in low socioeconomic conditions generally and Black communities worst of all; Hispanic is somewhere in between, hence the less substantial Gap. Consistent intervention from Day 1 works.

    This has been demonstrated very successfully by Nancy Ichinaga at Bennett-Kew Elementary in Inglewood, CA, back when it was still a predominantly low-socioeconomic, Black community (not yet substantially Hispanic). She took their standardized test scores from the lowest 5th percentile among all California kids to above the 60th percentile in a few short years of her principalship there long before she retired after achieving a national reputation including a stint on the CA Board Of Education where her ideas were completely ignored.

    It can be done, it takes massive intervention that does not wait for standardized test scores but she had monthly exams in reading and mathematics starting the first month problems arose with lots of tutoring at their level, not expecting them to do grade-level work while they are in transition.

    Nearly all were brought up to speed during their 6 years at Bennett-Kew. She told her teachers shortly after her arrival, “I have been looking over these standardized test scores and they are terrible. We have had these kids for 6 years and we have done almost nothing for them. If you are comfortable with this level of performance you will not be comfortable with me.” Several left but the others became principals at other schools after getting on board and being successful with her very top-down expectations.

    Replies

    • Dr. Bill Conrad 1 day ago1 day ago

      It is admirable that you tell the story of a heroic principal in Inglewood. However, heroic educational leaders will not save the day. Currently fewer than 1 out of 3 Bennett-Kew students are proficient in ELA and only 1 out of 5 are proficient in math. The root cause problem continues to be racism. Our economic, health, housing, and education systems continue to suffer from our national hangover of slavery, Jim Crow, and … Read More

      It is admirable that you tell the story of a heroic principal in Inglewood. However, heroic educational leaders will not save the day. Currently fewer than 1 out of 3 Bennett-Kew students are proficient in ELA and only 1 out of 5 are proficient in math.

      The root cause problem continues to be racism. Our economic, health, housing, and education systems continue to suffer from our national hangover of slavery, Jim Crow, and racism!

      Ogbu demonstrated significant achievement gaps between wealthy white students and wealthy Black students. The problem is still a melanin and not a money problem.

      The children are not being taught well as you suggest. Interventions would not be necessary if core instruction was up to speed.

      Massive failure of educational leadership and a poorly trained teaching corps will have a devastating impact on Black and Brown children who depend upon the system for their education.

      A transformation of the failed racist K-12 education system is required. A few educational heroes will not be enough.

  2. jim 4 days ago4 days ago

    There were some schools set up at one time specifically for AA males. What happened to those?

  3. Dr. Bill Conrad 5 days ago5 days ago

    The racist white hegemonic system operates as designed! For young Black boys! Elementary Black Boys! And High School Black Boys! Persistent and large achievement gaps and biased disciplinary actions are features of the racist system not bugs! A mostly white female teaching force that is poorly trained in content, pedagogy, and assessment skills will have great difficulty in educating any children but especially children of color who actually depend on the system for their … Read More

    The racist white hegemonic system operates as designed! For young Black boys! Elementary Black Boys! And High School Black Boys! Persistent and large achievement gaps and biased disciplinary actions are features of the racist system not bugs!

    A mostly white female teaching force that is poorly trained in content, pedagogy, and assessment skills will have great difficulty in educating any children but especially children of color who actually depend on the system for their education!

    There are no surprises here. There is an over 400 year history of educational oppression from slavery, to Jim Crow, to today’s garden style racism!

    Tinkering through district PD triage will never fix a failed system that requires massive transformation.

    It is beyond time for our Black Educational leaders and communities to build their own Freedom Schools while constantly protecting against the Tulsa effect!

    The oppressor has no real interest in educating the oppressed. Surely we have learned that lesson by now! No?

  4. Millie O'Donnell 6 days ago6 days ago

    Please provide evidence that implicit bias exists. Please provide evidence that systems of inequity exist. Disparity of outcome is not evidence of implicit bias or a ‘system of inequity’. Why are pieces like these permitted in this publication without providing evidence?

  5. el 6 days ago6 days ago

    Two things I think especially worthy of attention. First, the comment that maybe our "standard expectations" are not in fact equitable. Do we really need children to sit quietly for long periods of time in order to teach them? Is this a situation where we're already setting wiggly, active kids, who are IME disproportionately boys, up for failure? I experienced a young-child gymnastics center that baked math and learning into every lesson – various reading and … Read More

    Two things I think especially worthy of attention.

    First, the comment that maybe our “standard expectations” are not in fact equitable. Do we really need children to sit quietly for long periods of time in order to teach them? Is this a situation where we’re already setting wiggly, active kids, who are IME disproportionately boys, up for failure? I experienced a young-child gymnastics center that baked math and learning into every lesson – various reading and counting and pattern and computation activities while hopping, dashing from station to station, doing somersaults, etc.

    In the schools I’ve encountered, it’s extremely rare for there to be any academic male employees of color. Especially not black men. Once upon a time I would have thought that this didn’t matter, but what I’ve learned over the years is how much having a role model who helps you learn to carry yourself in an effective way for your demographic matters, as well as having that aspirational goal of “I want to be just like X when I grow up.” The specific may not always be fixable, but finding ways to provide those role models to all students in other ways certainly is, by drawing on the community or literature/media or other strategies.