Pre-K Progress

Want to reduce suspensions and expulsions in pre-K? Find a coach.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students at Casa Azafran, a Nashville pre-K center that collaborates with Vanderbilt University researchers to serve as a model for best practices in early childhood education

Pre-schoolers might be tiny, but they get suspended and expelled in big numbers.

Now, a new study suggests that even for teachers who want to shift that dynamic, real change only happens with real training.

The study, from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education, looked at what happened in Nashville and Tampa when teachers there learned about a new preschool discipline approach called the Pyramid Model.

They found that teachers who got 13 weeks of in-person and email feedback about their use of the new model changed their practices more — and reported better behavior among their students — than teachers who knew about the model but weren’t getting one-on-one support.

The finding comes as discipline for preschoolers comes under increased scrutiny. Nationally, preschoolers are suspended at three times the rate of older children — a discrepancy that raises questions about whether preschool teachers are equipped to handle behavior typical of young children.

It’s hard to say if students actually behave better when their teachers are trained more, or if teachers just perceive students’ behavior differently, said Mary Louise Hemmeter, the researcher who led the study. But she said it’s progress either way.

“We have to support teachers as a way to really see [misbehavior] as an opportunity to teach,” she said. “When he bites, he wants attention. How can I give him attention in a meaningful way? When he takes a toy, he wants to play. How do we help him do that in a [better] way?”

Hemmeter said this kind of training can also help the teachers challenge their own assumptions at a time when students of color are suspended and expelled at far higher rates than their white classmates. Another new study found that implicit racial biases among preschool teachers could be fueling that discrepancy.

Under the Pyramid Model, “We say, ‘This child kicked another child five times,’ rather than ‘This child was defiant or aggressive,’” Hemmeter said. “When we start labeling behaviors, that’s when our biases kick in.”

Intensive coaching isn’t easy at many preschools, where resources are often thin. Hemmeter said her team is looking at other ways to give preschool teachers a hand in curbing suspensions and expulsions. But she cautioned that a single workshop is unlikely to make a lasting difference.

“That’s really not how you get people to implement effective practices,” she said. “You need support on an ongoing basis to really effect change.”

Early education

Tennessee lawmakers vote to leave pre-K alone this year

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

Ever since Tennessee started its public pre-kindergarten program in 2005, Rep. Bill Dunn has questioned whether it’s money well spent.

His skepticism seemed vindicated in 2015, when a landmark five-year study by Vanderbilt University found that children who participated in Tennessee’s program didn’t make sustainable academic gains. In fact, they fell behind their peers by third grade. 

The legislature responded to the study’s surprising results last year with a new law designed to strengthen Tennessee’s pre-K program.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Rep. Bill Dunn

This year, Dunn proposed allowing districts to spend their pre-K money elsewhere. But his bill was killed on Wednesday in the House by colleagues who said they want to give new changes to public pre-K more time to work.

“I’m shocked,” said Dunn, a Republican from Knoxville, of the decision by the Instruction and Programs subcommittee. “This is coming across as anti pre-K, but it’s really anti-bad results.”

Dunn’s bill would have piloted a program to allow five districts to come up with other ways to spend their pre-K money — for instance,  making kindergarten classes the smaller. The Tennessee Department of Education would have to approve any change and monitor the impact on student achievement.

But lawmakers said they aren’t ready to meddle with early education while it’s in transition.

“I personally would like to see what comes from those changes … before we do anything else,” said Rep. John Forgety, a Republican from Athens.

The State Department of Education recently overhauled its application for local districts to receive pre-K money according to best practices identified by Vanderbilt researchers. Those changes are an effort to tie funding to quality.

The new applications, which seek state funding for next school year, are due to the state in April, and district officials have been attending trainings as part of the transition.

Discipline reform

Denver Public Schools takes strong stand against suspension and expulsion in early grades

Community members gathered in the library of Godsman Elementary School for a Denver Public Schools announcement that suspension and expulsion will be eliminated for preschool through third-grade.

Denver Public Schools announced plans Wednesday to eliminate out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for preschool through third grade students except in the most serious incidents.

District officials say the move puts DPS on the cutting edge of discipline reform nationally and builds on its work over the last 10 years to reduce suspensions and expulsions for all students, and replace traditional discipline methods with restorative justice techniques.

Wednesday’s announcement during a press conference at Godsman Elementary School came as state lawmakers are considering legislation that would curb suspensions and expulsions in preschool through second grade. The district’s new policy and the proposed legislation represent milestones in the years-long discussion in the state and nation about the disproportionate use of harsh discipline tactics on boys, students of color and students with disabilities.

The district’s new early childhood discipline policy will be unveiled at Thursday’s school board meeting and will be followed by a 60-day public comment period before it is finalized. It will take effect July 1.

District officials and representatives from local advocacy groups emphasized that the new policy will be accompanied by efforts to provide teachers and other staff with support in using alternative methods to suspension or expulsion.

“We really want to address the issue of student behavior. We really want to address also the issue of adult behavior and give adults a better set of tools and take out the hammer that you don’t need in your tool box…Some tools should not be in the toolbox when we are looking at babies,” said Ricardo Martinez, co-executive director of the Denver-based group Padres & Jovenes Unidos.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said about 500 students in preschool to third grade were suspended last year — most of those in second and third grade. None were expelled.

Under the new policy, suspensions would still be allowed in rare cases if a student poses a serious threat to himself or others. In those cases, suspensions would be limited to one day.

While several school districts and states have banned or significantly curtailed suspensions and expulsions for young students, most focus on students through second grade.

Eldridge Greer, the district’s associate chief of student equity and opportunity, said part of the reason DPS chose to extend its policy through third grade is to ensure kids are proficient in reading and math by the end of third grade.

“There’s no way we can reach that goal if a student is not in class,” he said.