Meek (@ShantelMeek) is the founding director of the Children’s Equity Project and a professor of practice at Arizona State University who was a senior policy adviser for early childhood development in the Obama administration. Catherine (@evcatherine) is a postdoctoral research scholar at the Children’s Equity Project at Arizona State University.
By Shantel Meek and Evandra Catherine
In 2005, Yale researchers shocked the nation’s conscience with the findings from the first major study on preschool expulsions. Astonishingly, researchers found that young children were expelled at a rate far higher than their older peers in K-12. Worse yet, Black children were much more likely to be pushed out.
Nearly a decade later, in 2014, the U.S. Department of Education released federal data on preschool suspension and expulsion for the first time. Little had changed. As in 2005, there were stark racial disparities in preschool discipline, with Black children being about three times as likely to be suspended from preschool than their White peers.
And now here we are, in 2020. Any guesses as to what the latest round of preschool discipline data released from the Department of Education last month shows?
While there have been some encouraging signs — the rate of suspensions and expulsions fell sharply between the 2015-2016 and the 2017-2018 school years — the same stubborn, stark racial disparities remain. Black boys make up 18 percent of the male preschool enrollment, but 41 percent of male preschool suspensions, and Black girls make up 19 percent of female preschool enrollment, but account for an astounding 53 percent of female suspensions.
Why haven’t we been able to change this shameful pattern? It’s not that we haven’t tried.
One of us, Shantel Meek, served as a policy adviser for early childhood in the Obama administration and was the lead architect behind the first joint federal agency policy statement calling for an end to preschool exclusionary discipline in 2014. That same year, President Barack Obama launched the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative and included eliminating exclusionary discipline for young children as a key policy goal.
We followed these calls with greater funding for children’s mental health, guidance to states on better supporting teachers in the classroom, and by addressing exclusionary discipline in regulation. The issue caught the attention of Congress, which, for the first time, moved to require states to publicly report their policies on expulsion of young children from child-care settings.
A wave of state and local policy change followed. Nineteen states have passed legislation limiting exclusionary discipline in public pre-K settings since 2014, and nearly every state has implemented some executive action to address the issue in child-care settings, though most have been modest.
It’s clear that all of this action still wasn’t enough.
But this problem existed before President Trump, and it will exist long after he is gone if we do not drop the colorblind approach to discipline. The many states that have passed reforms focused on limiting exclusionary discipline did so without ever mentioning race or disparity. The plethora of social-emotional interventions implemented in schools do not specifically address racism and the disparities it causes.
So here we are. Not surprisingly, the rates have dropped, but the disparities remain, untouched by policy or practice.
With a new administration coming into office in a couple of months, President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris have the opportunity to push past what we did under Obama so that the next time this data is released in two years, we are not in the same place, again wringing our hands at the stubbornness of the racial disparities.
That work starts with data. You can’t address a problem if you can’t see it. Programs that receive public funds should be required to track, report and address disparities in discipline and should get adequate resources to do so. Every preschool program, public or private, should continuously collect and analyze disaggregated data on discipline and use that data to inform internal policies, teacher training and support for children.
Teacher training on this issue must also be more targeted. Today, too many professional development opportunities for teachers aimed at improving positive discipline strategies focus exclusively on classroom management, managing challenging behavior and promoting social-emotional development. They ignore the key fact, supported by a wealth of research, that our implicit biases affect the ways that we perceive behavior.
Every teacher, teacher’s aide, administrator and systems leader in the early-childhood field must have training and ongoing coaching on systemic racism, specifically on identifying bias and using tangible skills to address it. The battle to rid ourselves of bias is probably unwinnable, but the battle to prevent it from manifesting into actions that can hurt children is certainly winnable and worthy of our time and investment.
Taking a colorblind approach to racism has never worked to address inequity; it has only ever increased it. This is no different. Talking about racial equity is not enough. It must be reflected in policy, in practice and in budgets. Even in our bitterly divided nation, surely we can agree that children fresh out of diapers shouldn’t be kicked out of school, especially because of the color of their skin.
Maya Angelou once said: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” It’s been 15 years since the first data on preschool suspension was released. We’ve known better for a long time, and it’s long past time to do better.