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.

year in review

Colorado’s year in early childhood: Bright spots and persistent challenges

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Efforts to improve child care quality in Colorado gained steam in 2016 amid ongoing concerns about abysmal pay for child care workers and excessive regulation in the field.

The year kicked off with a red-letter moment for the state’s child care rating system, Colorado Shines, which awarded its top Level 5 rating to the first two programs in the state. (Today, there are 25 child care facilities with Level 5 ratings.)

In the spring, a group of teen moms from Denver’s Florence Crittenton High School led the charge for a law change that makes it easier for teen mothers and domestic violence victims to secure state financial help for child care. The state also ushered in rules to inspect child care centers more often and give higher reimbursements to child care providers that earn high ratings.

But the focus on quality wasn’t just for licensed child care providers. Programs aimed at training unlicensed providers, including Spanish-speakers and undocumented immigrants, also ramped up in 2016.

On the innovation front, Westminster Public Schools’ in August began using a new financing mechanism to pay for full-day preschool — an effort that will be closely watched by other school districts over the next couple years.

The same month, U.S. Secretary of Education John King sang the praises of Colorado’s work to improve its early childhood systems during a visit to Denver.

One of 2016’s biggest unresolved early childhood conversations was about the suspension and expulsion of young children from preschool and early elementary school. While advocates had hoped to bring forward legislation on the issue during the 2016 session, a variety of factors, including concerns about the accuracy of discipline data, stymied those efforts.

Still, the state did significantly expand a program designed to help child care providers handle challenging behavior before it spirals into suspension or expulsion. In addition, a one-of-a-kind child care center opened in a poor northeast Denver neighborhood with a mission to serve local children, including those with challenging behavior.

Finally, there was much public conversation about the problem of harsh early childhood discipline — including a Chalkbeat Colorado’s panel discussion on the topic in May, a meeting of state and national experts at the Governor’s Mansion in August and a series of fall meetings by advocates planning for legislation during the 2017 session.

This is the first in a series of posts this week looking back at the year in Colorado education. 

bang for your buck

Investing early in quality child care for at-risk kids pays off big later, research finds

A staff member works with preschoolers at Educare Denver at Clayton Early Learning.

New research reveals that despite hefty up-front costs, quality child care programs for disadvantaged children starting just after birth and continuing to age five produce major financial dividends over the long term.

Such programs yield an annual return of 13 percent per child — generating $6.30 for every $1 initially invested in the program, according to the research by University of Chicago economist James Heckman.

The rate of return, which Heckman described as “huge,” is significantly higher than the 7 to 10 percent rate he found in previous research focusing just on the impact of preschool.

“We think this is very strong evidence for supporting this kind of program going forward,” Heckman said during a media briefing Thursday.

The study, released Monday, was authored by Heckman and other researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of Southern California. Heckman is known for his groundbreaking research on the economics of early childhood education.

With many cities and states focused on the expansion of full-day kindergarten or preschool in recent years, the new findings bolster arguments for early childhood investments that also cover kids’ first three years.

“The public policy literature has understated the importance of the very early years,” Heckman said.

At the same time, the study further documents the non-educational benefits of quality child care for at-risk children, particularly when it comes to long-term health outcomes.

“We’re seeing an improved human being in terms of the health capacity…at age 35,” said Heckman. “That’s a big benefit and it’s not a benefit that’s been considered in looking at these early childhood programs in the past.”

He said the research team’s projections show lower risk of diabetes, cancer and heart disease among children who attended the high-quality programs studied, as well as a reduction in unhealthy habits like smoking and drug use.

”What we found is a substantial reduction in those health costs and a much healthier workforce going forward,” he said.

The new study compared children who attended two intensive child care programs in North Carolina starting in the 1970s — the Carolina Abecedarian Project and Carolina Approach to Responsive Education — with those in a control group who had lower-quality child care arrangements.

In 2014 dollars, the annual cost of the intensive programs would be more than $18,000 per child.

In addition to providing full-day, full-year care and regular health exams to the children, the two programs provided child care subsidies to the parents, enabling them to work. Researchers followed participants from eight weeks old until age 35, examining a variety of outcomes, including educational attainment, earnings, health and involvement in crime.

While the early intensive programs benefitted all children, they benefitted boys most.

Heckman said the finding points to the likelihood that boys are more vulnerable and less resilient than girls if placed in low-quality child care settings.

“There do seem to be more harmful consequences for boys than for girls,” he said.

Although the two programs studied operated 40 years ago, the research team noted that such comprehensive birth-age 5 programs exist around the world today. Heckman cited the national Educare network of model child care centers as one example.

Denver’s Clayton Early Learning houses one such center and President and CEO Charlotte Brantley said she welcomed the new study.

“The research is absolutely telling us this is worth the upfront investment,” she said. “I applaud him for coming out one more time, saying this yet again.”

Brantley said there are few programs as comprehensive as Clayton in the state, though some full-day, full-year Head Start and Early Head Start programs may offer something similar.

Clayton, which offers care for infants starting at six weeks of age, provides extensive staff training, in-depth assistance for parents and has very low staff-child ratios. Brantley said the center recently embarked on a pilot project to train other providers on some of Clayton’s key practices.