education interrupted

What experts on preschool expulsion talked about at the Colorado governor’s mansion this week

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Metro State University professor Rosemarie Allen introduces state Rep. Susan Lontine at an event on preschool suspension and expulsion.

The national conversation about whether it’s appropriate to expel 3- and 4-year-olds came to the governor’s mansion Wednesday.

While Gov. John Hickenlooper didn’t attend, a group of state and national experts discussed the issue and state Rep. Susan Lontine, D-Denver, promised she would help craft legislation for the 2017 session.

“I really want to look for some solutions here,” said Lontine, whose adult son struggled with learning disabilities and behavioral issues in school. “Stay tuned.”

Chalkbeat sat in on the discussion, as experts talked about the extent of the problem — and some of the solutions already gaining traction. Here are some highlights.

The ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ starts in preschool.
Several speakers pointed out that the disproportionate share of black teen boys who wind up in the juvenile justice system maps almost exactly to the disproportionate share of black boys suspended and expelled from preschool.

Black students make up just 18 percent of the national preschool population but 42 percent of those suspended once, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. For students suspended multiple times, the disparity is even greater.

“I always say we cannot talk about suspensions without talking about race when nearly half of all preschool suspensions are African-American children,” said Metro State University professor Rosemarie Allen, who organized the event.

She said the disparities won’t shrink until educators learn to overcome implicit bias — the unconscious assumptions people make based on characteristics like race and gender.

Suspensions of the youngest students are often invisible.
In the K-12 school system, there are due process hearings when kids are formally removed from class for long periods. At the preschool level, parents may simply be asked to pick up their children early from preschool because of problem behavior, said Phil Strain, professor of educational psychology and early childhood special education at University of Colorado Denver.

“That’s an expulsion and suspension with a small ‘e’ and a small ‘s’ that has, I would argue, an equally devastating effect on the family,” he said.

Teachers’ mental health and well-being are important.
Speakers noted that suspensions and expulsions are about adult decision-making and all the factors that influence it — things like stress, mental health problems, unconscious bias, and inexperience. Research shows that teachers who screen positive for depression, for example, expel children at twice the rate of teachers who don’t.

“We have a population of teachers that are starving,” said Walter Gilliam, a Yale University professor who conducted pioneering research on early childhood expulsion rates. “They are starving for attention, validation, and supports, and that’s what we need to provide for them.”

There are effective ways to prevent suspensions and expulsions.
Some teacher trainings—including the Colorado-created Pyramid Plus Approach— have been proven to give teachers the skills to manage challenging behavior. Having early childhood mental health consultants coach teachers helps too — and Colorado just doubled the number of those state-funded consultants, from 17 to 34.

“I am thrilled to see the awareness of the problem, but let’s not forget we have solutions too,” said Barbara Smith, research professor at University of Colorado Denver’s Center for Evidence Based Practice in Early Learning.

Strong parent-teacher relationships help, too.
Gilliam pointed out that, if the first time a parent and teacher talk is after a child’s challenging behavior, that sets the stage for a difficult relationship.

“I’ve seen a lot of kids expelled from preschool programs and a lot of kids suspended, but I’ve never seen a case of a child suspended or expelled when the parent and teacher knew and liked each other,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the university where Phil Strain and Barbara Smith work. They work at University of Colorado Denver. 

building blocks

Why a Colorado researcher believes preschool students should learn — and play — with math

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

What do preschoolers need math for? Doug Clements argues preschoolers use math everywhere from reading to play — and engaging early mathematics instruction can help better prepare young students for later learning.

Clements, the executive director of the University of Denver’s Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy, has spent nearly his entire career studying and advocating for introducing math concepts in early childhood education. He and his wife Julie Sarama, Marsico’s co-executive director, developed preschool lessons and tests for teaching mathematics to early learners. Their hallmark program, Building Blocks, has taken hold in cities such as Boston and Buffalo, N.Y., where both Clements and Sarama have conducted research.

Clements took the helm at Marsico in 2013, where he and Sarama have worked on a new iteration of their math-focused early childhood curriculum that incorporates literacy, social-emotional learning and science.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Clements shared memories from the classroom and the benefits — and fun — of teaching math concepts to preschoolers. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How did you become fascinated with early math education?

I served as a graduate assistant to a math (education) professor because I liked math as a student myself. We drove a big van around with 1960s curriculum from National Science Foundation and showed teachers this stuff.

When I started teaching kindergarten I was very sensitive to the fact that I wanted to do mathematics better, so I was always casting about for curriculum or ideas to teach mathematics. I was just skeptical these kids could do it, so I was hesitant many times to ask them to do these kinds of things. But lo and behold, they took to it. It surprised me. If you talk to (kids) about their strategies and what they’re thinking about the mathematics, it just reveals so much more competence than you’d normally think that really young kids had.

I just became more and more interested in pushing the  envelope of these kind of abilities kids had mathematically. Teachers often will say, “I got into preschool so I didn’t have to teach mathematics.” And instead we tell them, “We don’t want you to give kids the kind of experiences that led you to dislike mathematics.”

Do you have a specific examples or story of a time where you saw the benefits of early math instruction in action?

We were reading a book and the (students) noticed the hexagons in a beehive, and they came up with all these different reasons that bees would make hexagons. The kids had a delightful time thinking of different reasons. For example, one of the reasons was the bees saw the hexagons in the school and thought, “That’s a great shape. We should use that in our beehive.” And this boy happened to say, “I think they chose hexagons because they fit together real well.”

The kind of natural interest and competence they have in mathematics — if given the opportunities, the interactions with the teachers, the intentional teaching that the teacher does — leads to spontaneous use of mathematics throughout their lives.

We know from research kids who come from lower-resource communities don’t have a heck of a lot of those experiences so it’s really important that those schools we are working with, with kids with huge percentages of free and reduced lunch. All kids need better and more mathematics. It’s especially important for equity reasons, for those kids who have fewer resources in their homes and communities, to be able to go to a preschool where their kind of fire of interest in mathematics is provided by the teacher and the curriculum.

What are some of the key findings you have drawn from your research on the link between early math and early literacy?

Doing math with kids actually helps them build the ability to learn and use new vocabulary words even if those vocabulary words were not mathematical in content. They have to dig down deep to explain their own thinking and that really helped them build more complex grammatical structures, and that’s an outcome of the mathematics. And then they were more able to answer inferential questions.

Well-done mathematics doesn’t just teach mathematics, it’s cognitively fundamental and helps kids learn a variety of abilities.

How are these concepts integrated in the classroom?

What’s most effective is to combine methodologies. We don’t just do whole group, we don’t just do small group, we don’t just do learning centers, we don’t just do computer — we do all four of those. We keep it short, interesting. So, for example, kids will stomp around classroom marching and (counting alternately quietly and loudly).

What does it do? It builds, of course, the verbal counting strength. But look at what else — it builds the knowledge of one-to-one correspondence because they’re stamping per each count. Not only that, it builds intuition about pattern because we’re saying one quietly, two loudly. And then lastly they’re building intuition about even and odd numbers, because all the odd numbers are said quietly, all the even numbers are said loudly.

So you don’t have to do, sit down, look at the paper, write the number two, to be doing fundamentally interesting mathematics.

How many preschools are actually integrating early math concepts into their programs the way you think it should be done? Is there anything holding back programs from doing so?

Most people understand that the goal of literacy is to be able to read and write and think, but often people think the goal of math is to be able to compute accurately. That’s such a limited view of mathematical thinking writ large. So we have a lot of work to do to change people’s conception of mathematics as well as their skills in understanding the math, understanding the kid’s thinking and understanding how to teach to develop that kid’s thinking.

But it is coming along — there is more general knowledge and awareness at least, interest in it, and — this is important in early childhood the youngest years, the preschool years — less resistance to doing mathematics (because of the perception) that it’s developmentally inappropriate which it’s not. But still, in some circles (they say), “Kids should play, kids should be kids. Why would they do math? That should wait until later. Math is just school, boring stuff, and kids should be kids and play.”


Parent tips

Who is that giving advice to parents of young children? Why, it’s a lead singer of the Flobots.

Stephen Brackett, a lead vocalist for the Denver hip-hop group Flobots, appears in a set of state videos about early learning.

One of the lead singers for the Denver hip-hop band Flobots is the star of a new series of videos meant to help parents give their young children a solid start in life.

In 29 short videos, a conversational Stephen Brackett — sometimes sporting cardigan sweaters and other times colorful bow ties — shares facts about child development and provides parents with tips on everything from bonding with their babies to getting their older children ready for school. A local radio personality, Issa Lopez, provides the same information in a set of Spanish-language videos.

The videos are part of a new campaign by Colorado’s Office of Early Childhood to share the state’s early learning and development guidelines with parents and other caregivers.

The goal is to “make this information come alive as opposed to sitting on a website or a tip sheet,” said Katharine Brenton, a communications contractor for the Office of Early Childhood.

The guidelines, published in 2013, describe what children from birth to 8 should know and be able to do at each stage of early childhood. Colorado is one of the first states to use videos to communicate early learning guidelines to parents.

Brenton said Brackett, a former teacher at several Colorado schools, was asked to participate because of his background in education and his community involvement.

Aside from being a recognizable figure, he’s “someone who has a real heart for the issues,” she said.

Brackett, whose stage name is Brer Rabbit, co-founded the nonprofit Youth on Record, which provides music lessons and production training to at-risk Denver high school students. The Flobots are known for weaving social activism through their music, with songs focusing on everything from immigration reform to climate change.

State officials plan to promote the new videos, along with related online information about the learning and development guidelines, with the help of the state’s 31 early childhood councils and through a paid social media and marketing campaign.