Breaking down stereotypes

Racial bias among preschool teachers is a problem, study says. Here’s what Colorado experts think should be done.

PHOTO: Dylan McCoy

Some of Colorado’s early childhood leaders say findings from a new study on preschool teacher bias spotlight the need for a more diverse early childhood workforce and more training to combat the unconscious bias teachers of all races bring to the classroom.

The study released last week by Yale researcher Walter Gilliam found that black and white preschool teachers expect boys, especially black boys, to act up in class, and watch them more closely for signs of challenging behavior.

It revealed how teachers’ underlying assumptions about race and gender affect their discipline decisions. The study follows on earlier research showing that young black boys are disproportionately expelled from preschools — a precursor to the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately impacts young black men.

The findings come at a time of intense national discussion about racial disparities in school discipline and in the midst of a debate in Colorado about how to reduce harsh discipline tactics during the preschool and early elementary school years.

Gilliam’s Findings

    A team led by Walter Gilliam conducted a study of 135 preschool teachers in which the teachers were asked to watch videos of four children — a black boy, a black girl, a white boy and a white girl. They were also asked to read a vignette that described a child’s challenging behavior, with the only difference being the name — Latoya, Emily, DeShawn or Jake.
  • Both black and white preschool teachers watched boys, especially black boys, more than girls of either race for signs of challenging behavior.
  • When asked directly which of the four children in the video required most of their attention, teachers of all races cited the black boy most often.
  • Black teachers rated challenging behavior as more severe than white teachers did when it came from black boys — suggesting that white teachers may have lower expectations for black boys.
  • When teachers learned about family stressors that might be contributing to a child’s challenging behavior, they rated the behavior as less severe, but only when they were of the same race as the child.

Last year, plans for legislation on the topic fizzled, but there’s a new push by a task force of state officials, advocates and at least one state-lawmaker to craft a bill for the 2017 session.

There’s been progress on other fronts, too. The state recently doubled the ranks of early childhood mental health consultants who help teachers better handle challenging behavior. Also, a Colorado team won a federal grant in August for a pilot project intended to help teachers understand what triggers challenging behavior and when biases come into play.

Erin Mewhinney, director of the Division of Early Care and Learning in the state human services department, also noted that the state Office of Early Childhood is commissioning a study that will look at the scope of preschool suspensions and expulsions in Colorado. Despite national studies showing major race-based disparities in early childhood discipline, state-specific data is scarce here.

Mewhinney said instead of simply trying to regulate early childhood suspensions and expulsions, the state has taken a more holistic approach, seeking input and buy-in from lots of groups.

Other leaders say more needs to be done on a consistent basis across the state.

“I would be hard-pressed to say that Colorado as a state has an action plan in place, but I think there are certain pockets of individuals who are very sensitive to this issue,” said Phil Strain, a University of Colorado Denver professor who heads the university’s Positive Early Learning Experiences Center.

He’s part of the team leading the federally funded pilot, called the Pyramid Equity Project, that will take place at preschools in Tennessee and New Jersey.

Rosemarie Allen, an assistant professor at Metro State University who presented about the Pyramid Equity Project during last week’s study release event, said of Colorado’s progress, “We are on the right track but we really have to beef up our efforts to address implicit bias, to talk about it.”

Gilliam’s study helps illustrates how complex racial dynamics can be in student-teacher interactions as well as relationships between teachers and families.

Allen, who also leads the Institute for Racial Equity and Excellence, said she wasn’t surprised by the finding that it wasn’t just white teachers who were on high alert for bad behavior from black boys. Still, it’s an uncomfortable topic for some.

“People are not wanting to talk about black teachers (who) did the same thing,” Allen said. “Of course they did. Do you think we’re not all impacted by implicit bias?”

What surprised her more about the study was how preschool teachers reacted when they read a paragraph explaining more about the background and family stressors of the study’s fictional students. Black teachers became more empathetic and rated the problem behaviors of the black students as less severe, while white teachers rated them as more severe.

“I’ve been reflecting on that quite a bit,” Allen said. “If it reinforces stereotypes and you already believe this is hopeless…Is it like, ‘Here we go, you know how they are.’?”

Although she acknowledged that reading a background paragraph isn’t the same as the face-to-face interaction that preschool teachers typically have with families, she said the finding was heartbreaking.

Strain also found the result disturbing, but said, “getting to know people and really understand their life circumstance is clearly an antidote to the operation of implicit bias.”

Both professors said recruiting more teachers of color and creating more training opportunities that help all teachers address implicit bias are important.

The state doesn’t track the racial demographics of early childhood teachers, but national studies suggest about three-quarters of teachers are white and about 10 percent are black. Head Start programs, where about one-third of teachers are black, are a notable exception.

Allen and Strain, who said their universities have been at the forefront of efforts to train future early childhood teachers on implicit bias and cultural competence, also seek more support for existing teachers.

It’s important to provide proactive strategies that teachers can use in real time, Strain said. Simply pointing that children of color are disproportionately suspended and expelled doesn’t help.

“While that’s part of the equation, it’s not necessarily the road to getting folks to change their behavior,” he said.

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.