The discipline divide

Suspended countless times as a child, this professor is tackling racial disparities in preschool discipline

Rosemarie Allen knows that black students are disproportionately suspended and expelled from preschool and the K-12 system.

As the former director of the state’s Division of Child Care and now as a professor of early childhood education at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, she’s worked to address the issue for years. But she also experienced the phenomenon firsthand while growing up in California.

She talked with Chalkbeat about her own experience with school discipline, how unconscious prejudice impacts teachers and what can be done to address suspensions and expulsions in early childhood settings.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get interested in the topic of suspensions and expulsions?

I was suspended from school from the time I started kindergarten…at least five to seven times a year. I was expelled from three schools. It was the strangest thing because I knew instinctively I wasn’t bad and I couldn’t figure out why I kept getting in trouble.

I was really curious…Digging a big giant hole in the middle of the playground because the teacher said China was at the other end. Taking off all the baby dolls’ heads to see how the eyes worked.

After years of getting in trouble, what was the dynamic between you and your teachers?

After awhile I didn’t try anymore. I knew what they expected and we all resented each other. One time, we were having a math test and the teacher gave me the lecture: “If you get out of your seat just one time for any reason, you are going to get a big fat F. Do you understand?”

I took the test and finished really fast and I don’t know if I dropped my pencil or I threw my pencil, (but) I got up and got it. She came over and she put a big fat F on my paper. I was about 10.

By this time we were already in a power struggle. So, I said, “That’s OK. You know I got an A and I know I got an A.” So I took the F and (turned it) into an A and that infuriated her. She said, “If it goes in my grade book, it’s an F.” And with a red marker (she) put an F in the grade book. Me, being the kid I was, took the grade book and threw it out the window.

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Given your history of suspensions and expulsions as a kid, how did you overcome that negative trajectory?

I had the most amazing, supportive extended family. Even when I was in trouble they always made me know I was smart. Now, when I did something wrong, when I got home I was grounded, but it didn’t define me.

How did your perceptions of your early struggles with discipline change when you started your doctorate program?

I realized it was not me at all. It was a sign of the times. I was the first generation after Brown vs. Board of Education where I had white teachers who did not have experience dealing with African-American children.

What do young children, especially young black children, typically get suspended and expelled for today?

What we’re seeing is young black boys are engaged in either the same behaviors or even lesser offenses than young white boys, but the implicit bias of teachers doesn’t allow them to see it. They’re saying they’re disruptive, defiant, too active. Even if you go through 12th grade those are the reasons.

In my research, we see teachers judge black children based on stereotypes. When you believe a stereotype you see what you expect. So, you have a cultural disconnect, implicit bias and teachers not knowing how to handle what they call challenging behaviors.

My favorite saying is “behavior is defined by the person most annoyed by it.” If you already have this unconscious bias that we all have, then that behavior from that child annoys you even more.

You once observed a kindergarten class where a black boy was singled out for misbehavior by a teacher. What happened?

She was trying to get the children to sit criss-cross applesauce and they’re not. And the little guy I’m observing…he runs over and sits criss-cross applesauce.

The little white boy sitting right next to the teacher pulls his shirt over his head. He’s flipping. He’s turning. My little guy has been sitting and trying to get (the teacher’s) attention forever and he’s not getting it, so he unfolds his legs and he sticks them out and she has to reach over (the white boy and a white girl) to tell him to put his legs back. And you wonder does she see the kids next to her? Does she see the little girl twirling? For every four times she corrects (the black student) she says maybe one thing to the other two.

Did you have a chance to show the teacher the video you took of that incident?

Neither she nor the principal would look at the video. It was heartbreaking. The mom (of the black student) ended up taking him out. She was being called three or four times a week to pick him up.

This 2011-12 data is from The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.
This 2011-12 data is from The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Even though we’re seeing these amazing numbers of suspensions, what we’re not able to capture is what we call the “soft suspensions” — forcing them out; asking them to leave; saying, “This isn’t a good fit.”

What do you think caused the teacher you observed to focus so much on the black student’s behavior?

The biggest problem is the teacher didn’t know what to do. She had very little experience working with young children.

There are studies that talk about implicit bias and how it’s triggered most often with the automatic responses that are made under stress…So, she’s under stress. Here I am observing her room, (there are) 22 children who will not sit criss-cross applesauce and she tried to make them do it for 25 minutes. That’s where the implicit bias comes in: “Who are my troublemakers?”

What are the consequences for children who are suspended or expelled?

By the time they get to kindergarten and they’ve been kicked out of about two or three facilities, now they’re already disengaged from the learning process. And the greatest indicator of being suspended is having been suspended before.

Academic outcomes are definitely lowered. They’re disenfranchised even from other kids because now they’re labeled “bad.” So, not only are they in an “out” group because of race or gender, they’re in an “out” group because they’ve been identified as “bad.”

These kids have a lot of trouble…having positive relationships with teachers and with other children and sometimes at home.

How early do suspensions or expulsions start?

My research shows it starts about 17 months and usually it’s for biting or aggressive behaviors. Even that young there’s disproportionality. We’re seeing all the children are biting, but black boys are being suspended or kicked out.

How do you facilitate cultural competency in your classes at MSU Denver?

Ninety-five percent of my students are white women. Most of them, by self report, have had very little interaction with people of color. We take them on these field trips (to a black church, a Buddhist temple, Denver’s Five Points neighborhood etc.) where they are now engaging with people from backgrounds they’ve never had exposure to.

You once visited a family child care home run by a man who offered unusual opportunities for movement and physical activity. How did that shape your thoughts on the mostly female early childhood workforce?

I began to see how careful we are: “Don’t jump! Don’t run!” How much we stifle the natural activity of boys. I began to see that as women, we want boys to act like girls because then we can be in a lot more control.

You’ve said that everyone has implicit bias, including you.

As long as I’ve been doing this work, I’d say at least two or three times a week my biases pop up.

My classroom was observed when I was a young teacher and the observer said I was biased against little girls — one of the most devastating events of my career. She didn’t say, ‘You’re biased.’ She said, “Rosemarie, do you like little girls?’ And I said, ‘Of course I do, I love all my children.’ She goes, ‘Well, little girls tend to get in trouble a lot with you, more so than little boys.’

My daughter said this was my PTSD because … when I was in trouble (as a child), it was always the little girls who tattled on me, so I had this built-in bias.

How does public policy need to change on early childhood suspensions and expulsions?

I believe as long as we have suspension in our tool box, we’ll use it. You’ve heard the saying, “If the only thing you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.” And we want to get rid of the hammer, but we can’t do that if teachers don’t have the support they need.

The last thing we want is for a child who’s perceived as a problem to be forced to stay in an environment where they’re not wanted, because then I would fear abuse, no matter how subtle that is.

So, I think the first thing we need to do is make sure teachers have the tools they need. They need training on implicit bias. They need professional development on how to handle some of these behaviors.

My contention is in order to reduce disproportionality we have to be aware of the biases, the culture and the expectations that we bring into every situation. And it’s just there for all of us, whether it’s the gender gap, the racial gap, class gap.

What is the next thing Colorado should do?

It’s two pronged: Create the policy that says if suspension is ever used it will be used as a last resort and it will be determined by a third party. And teachers get the supports they need.

The key is that we recognize that people are in this field because they truly want to make a positive difference and impact outcomes for children. No one is coming in saying I want to suspend little black kids or little brown kids. They are doing the best they can with what they have. I think that’s the first thing we need to recognize. But then say, “But here’s the data and we know why that’s happening.”

I think providers are afraid they’re going to be perceived as really bad people. We don’t want that. We know that there are tools out there that can help: Pyramid Model practices, early childhood mental health consultants and teacher prep programs. The Denver Preschool Program has a four-part training series on addressing disproportionality in discipline.

leading the state

Three things we heard at a gubernatorial candidates forum on early childhood

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat
Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for Colorado governor, and Lang Sias, the Republican lieutenant governor candidate, spoke at forum on early childhood issues.

Stark differences in how Colorado’s two would-be governors plan to tackle early childhood issues were clear at a candidate forum Monday evening.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democratic nominee, envisions free full-day preschool and kindergarten for all Colorado children — a sweeping and pricey expansion of what’s currently available.

Republican lieutenant governor candidate Lang Sias, who stood in for gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, said Republicans would focus public funds on narrower programs that benefit the poorest children.

Currently, Colorado funds early childhood programs for some of its young children. The state provides half-day preschool to 4-year-olds with certain risk factors, but the program covers only some of those who qualify. In addition, the state reimburses districts for just over half the cost of full-day kindergarten, leaving districts to pay for the rest or pass on the cost to families through tuition. Last spring, lawmakers expanded the state income tax credit for child care costs, but most families still need to come up with hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month.

Monday’s event at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science represented a rare opportunity to hear candidates address early childhood issues, which are often overshadowed on the campaign trail by topics such as housing, roads and health care. While the forum highlighted some of the big early childhood ideas championed by each campaign, it also left plenty of unanswered questions.

Stapleton, Colorado’s state treasurer, was originally slated to speak at the forum, but backed out citing family obligations. Sias, a state representative from Arvada and a member of the House Education Committee, spoke in his place.

Polis and Sias didn’t debate each other at Monday’s forum, or otherwise interact. Polis went first, giving a short statement about his early childhood platform then answering several questions posed by moderator Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Sias followed suit.

The event was sponsored by Constellation Philanthropy, a group of funders focused on early childhood issues. (Constellation is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Here are three things we learned from the forum:

The candidates have different ideas about which young children need help and how to provide it

In discussing his plans to create universal full-day preschool and kindergarten, Polis talked about using a public-private financing mechanism that’s sometimes called “social impact bonds.”

In this kind of financing — also called “pay for success” — private investors or philanthropists pay up front for social programs and get repaid with interest if those programs save public money by reducing the need for costly services such as special education or reading remediation. If a project doesn’t yield the hoped-for savings, the investors lose some or all of their money.

Polis said if he wins in November, he’ll immediately “work out how to partner with philanthropy to create more early childhood education for all income levels.”

Currently a version of social impact bonds is being used to pay for full-day preschool for some students in the Westminster school district north of Denver, a fact Polis mentioned Monday. Still, the financing mechanism is relatively untested in Colorado’s education sphere and it’s unclear how it might be scaled to pay for something as ambitious as statewide full-day preschool and kindergarten.

When talking about the Republican ticket’s early-education priorities, Sias described early childhood education as “incredibly important” but “very inequitably distributed.”

“We want to focus our public spending on those who are least able to afford it on their own,” he said.

He cited a proposal for education savings accounts that allow families to set aside money tax-free for educational expenses, including early childhood education.

“We realize that is more focused on middle-class and above families,” he said, “but by targeting that money using that program, we feel we will have more available to target the folks at the bottom of the spectrum who really cannot avail themselves of that opportunity.”

Education savings accounts don’t typically work for low-income parents because they have no extra money to set aside for future expenses.

The candidates would take different approaches to strengthening the early childhood workforce

In a field marked by low pay and tough working conditions, recruiting and retaining qualified teachers is a chronic problem. The candidates had ideas about how to bulk up the workforce.

Sias advocated for a residency program to help turn out new early childhood teachers, similar to what he’s previously proposed to help address the K-12 teacher shortage. He said such programs are data-driven, helping retain teachers for longer periods and improving student results.

He also floated the idea of recruiting midlife career-changers to early childhood work — “folks north of 50” — and hinted that they would work in the low-paid field.

“Is that an opportunity to tap into … folks who would like to fill those spots who maybe don’t have the same set of issues that millennials do in terms of how long they want to stay and how long they need to be committed, and frankly how much they need to be paid?”

While some middle-aged people do enter the field, mediocre pay, a maze of state regulations, and the growing push to boost providers’ education levels could make it a tough sell.

Polis talked about creating partnerships with colleges to beef up the credentials of people who currently work in the early childhood field.

He said it’s important to “bridge the skills gap” for those whose hearts are already in the work. He didn’t address how he could dramatically expand preschool and kindergarten simply by focusing on the existing workforce, where turnover can be as high as 40 percent annually.

Neither candidate talked about how he would boost compensation for early childhood workers, whose median pay in Colorado is $12.32 an hour, Jaeger said.

Both candidates agree that Colorado can do much better by its youngest residents

When asked how Colorado is doing overall in supporting young children and their families, both candidates agreed that the state has a long way to go.

Sias emphasized that low-income children continue to be left out. Polis talked about the lack of uniform access to full-day kindergarten.

Both candidates expressed interest in working with bipartisan coalitions on solutions.

“There’s so many people in our state who want to do right by their kids,” said Polis. “It’s really going to take folks from across the spectrum coming together.”

Sias, who argued for a combination of business-minded acumen and public money for early childhood, asked the audience to partner with lawmakers in finding what programs work.

He said he and Stapleton are “more than willing to work across the aisle with folks that we like and respect, and have knowledge in this area.”

Early Childhood

Jeff Bezos says he will use his riches to open Montessori preschools

PHOTO: Nick Hagen
A student in a Detroit Montessori program. Jeff Bezos announced today on Twitter that he would be pouring $2 billion into two major initiatives, including “a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

The latest effort to improve early childhood education for poor children comes from the richest man alive: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Bezos announced today on Twitter that he would be pouring $2 billion into two major initiatives, including “a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

The preschools, Bezos wrote, will be free for students and inspired by the Montessori approach, in which children direct their own learning in an environment that is prepared for them to explore. Montessori instruction has traditionally been available only in private schools, but new efforts to make the model more accessible have taken hold, and recent research suggests that it benefits children from low-income families.

Bezos also signaled that he intends to apply his famously stringent standards to the new schools. The hands-on CEO reportedly still reads emails from Amazon customers and has been known to berate executives when the customer experience suffers. At the preschools, he wrote, “The child will be the customer.”

Much about the initiative is unclear, from what “tier-one” means to where, when, and how many schools will open. Bezos’s announcement did not acknowledge the current bipartisan movement to fund preschool more widely, so it’s unclear whether his network might ever seek public money or how it might interact with — or even crowd out — existing efforts to expand preschools.

It’s also not clear how much transparency to expect from Bezos’s effort, which he called the Day One Fund. A number of wealthy individuals, including Mark Zuckerberg, have organized their giving through a limited liability company, rather than a nonprofit. This approach does not require disclosing who receives grants and allows the organizations to give to political causes and invest in for-profit companies.

Research has pointed to long-run benefits of early childhood education programs. One recent study found that the benefits extended to multiple generations — the children of children who participated in the federal Head Start program were more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

In addition to preschools, the Day One Fund will tackle homelessness, according to Bezos, who crafted his giving strategy after asking his Twitter followers how he should spend his wealth.