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.

Early education

Is Tennessee moving its weakest teachers to early, non-tested grades? New research says yes.

PHOTO: Getty Images

Tennessee’s education insiders have whispered for years that some elementary school principals were moving their least effective teachers to critical early grades, which are free of high-stakes tests. That’s despite clear evidence that those years are the most important for preparing students for a lifetime of learning.

Now a new study has confirmed that the shift is real.

Researchers examining 10 years worth of state data through 2016 found that low-performing teachers in grades 3 through 5 were more likely to be reassigned to non-tested early grades than their more effective peers.

The findings, released Friday by the Tennessee Education Research Alliance and Vanderbilt University, may be an important piece of the puzzle in figuring out why almost two-thirds of the state’s students are behind on reading by the end of the third grade.

“These trends matter because having effective teachers in the early grades helps establish a foundation for success as students progress into later grades,” the research brief states.

The authors used Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system, including classroom observation scores and student achievement data, to track the reassignment of elementary school teachers by their principals. They found that only a hundred of the lowest-rated teachers were shifted to the lower grades in any given year, making for a relatively small impact across Tennessee. However, the pattern was consistent for all reassigned teachers who scored in the bottom three evaluation ratings on a scale of 1 to 5.

It’s not conclusive, though, whether those teachers remain ineffective when moved to kindergarten, first, or second grades.

“This could be counter-productive, but it could actually be productive if school leaders are finding better fits for their elementary school teachers,” said Sy Doan, who authored the research brief along with Laura K. Rogers.

Another study is in the works to examine whether students’ academic growth is stunted by re-assigning less effective teachers to lower grades.

Like other states, Tennessee doesn’t require testing until the third grade, when student scores are used to begin gauging the performance of students, teachers, schools, and districts.

But research elsewhere has shown that the pressures of such accountability systems for higher elementary grades can unintentionally give administrators incentives to “staff to the test” and move their weakest teachers to the early years.

“The patterns we found in Tennessee are consistent with similar studies conducted in other states,” Doan said.

Advocates of early education say the latest findings — while not surprising — should be a powerful reminder to school administrators that kindergarten through second grade are high-stakes for students’ learning and development, even if those years are free of high-stakes testing.

“I think it’s going to raise some important conversations,” said Lisa Wiltshire, policy director for Tennesseans for Quality Early Education. “If we want to improve third-grade outcomes, Tennessee has got to start prioritizing investments in the early grades, particularly in the quality of teachers.”

Sharon Griffin, a longtime Memphis school administrator who now leads Tennessee’s school turnaround district, made that point last week during a presentation to state legislators on the House Education Committee.

“When I was a principal …. there was this unprecedented norm where you would put your most effective teachers in grades that are tested,” she said. “Now we know from lessons learned that it’s really pre-K, kindergarten, first and second grades where you need the strongest teachers, so that our kids can be on grade level by third grade and we are not trying to close the gap continuously from third grade on.”

Tennessee has done some serious soul-searching about why most of its third-graders can’t pass the proficiency bar in reading, which is considered the foundation for learning and success in all subject areas.

The frustrations deepened in 2015 when a landmark Vanderbilt study showed that academic gains achieved by students in Tennessee’s public pre-K classrooms were fading out by first grade and vanishing altogether by third grade.

Since then, the focus has been on why. Is it the quality of pre-K? Or could it be missteps and misalignment in instruction and curriculum from kindergarten through the third grade?

Upcoming research will dig into those questions as other Vanderbilt researchers visit Tennessee classrooms next school year to observe instructional quality and teaching practice in the early grades.

“We know surprisingly little about the connections among the experiences children have across the early grades of school,” said Caroline Christopher, who will co-lead the work with Dale Farran, director of the Peabody Research Institute.  

Their study will be funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted through the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, a partnership between Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development and the Tennessee Department of Education.

early childhood discipline

New Colorado bill aims to keep young students in school — even after they misbehave

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat

Last school year, Colorado’s public schools handed out nearly 6,000 out-of-school suspensions to young children. 

This week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed legislation that could reduce those numbers — the latest push in a four-year effort to get early childhood discipline reform across the finish line.

The bill introduced Wednesday would limit suspensions and expulsions of students in preschool through second grade to certain circumstances, including if they bring weapons or drugs to school, or are deemed a safety threat. It would also require schools to exhaust other alternative discipline options before removing students from school. Finally, the bill would limit suspensions to three school days.

If passed, the law would take effect July 1, 2020.

While the bill would apply to all public K-12 schools, it would apply to only some preschools — those housed in school districts or charter schools, as well as community-based programs serving children eligible for certain kinds of public funding, such as state preschool dollars.

The behavior that gets little kids suspended varies, but can include biting, kicking, fighting or causing frequent classroom disruptions.

Across the nation, boys, children of color, and children with disabilities receive a disproportionate share of suspensions.

In Colorado, the disparities are pronounced. Last year, for example, young boys received 86 percent of K-2 suspensions though they made up only half of the K-2 population.

Black students, who made up just 5 percent of K-2 enrollment statewide, received nearly 12 percent of K-2 suspensions last year. Students with disabilities, who made up 10 percent of K-2 enrollment statewide, received 37 percent of K-2 suspensions.

The Colorado Department of Education tracks suspension data for public schools, but not for preschools that operate outside of public schools.

Opponents of suspensions and expulsions say sending kids home from school for acting out doesn’t help them learn appropriate behavior, increases the likelihood they’ll be suspended again, and feeds the school-to-prison pipeline.

But school district leaders who’ve pushed back against discipline legislation have argued that limiting suspensions takes away one of their few tools for addressing disruptive and violent behavior. They’ve also expressed frustration about the lack of staff and resources, especially in small rural schools, to handle students’ mental health needs.

This year’s early childhood bill is similar to one that was defeated in 2017, but allows schools a little more leeway in doling out suspensions and expulsions. For example, the earlier bill would have allowed expulsions only when young students brought guns to school. Now, there would be several reasons a young student could be expelled.

Likewise, the previous bill would have allowed suspensions only if a student endangered others, but didn’t specify that bringing drugs, controlled substances, or weapons to school could also be grounds for suspension.

The earlier bill faced sharp opposition from rural school district leaders, among other groups. It ultimately died in a Republican-controlled committee.

Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said the coalition of groups that worked on the latest bill tried hard to incorporate feedback from critics while staying true to their goals.

“We’ve done our best all along the way to be responsive,” he said.  

Besides broadening the grounds for out-of-school discipline, the latest version of the bill delays implementation by a year.

Jaeger said that delay will allow state-level mental health and funding initiatives in the works now to trickle down to school districts and give districts more time to adapt local discipline practices.

K-2 Suspensions by District

This chart shows the number of suspensions given, not the number of students suspended. In some districts, individual students receive multiple suspensions during a school year.