Questions of Access and Equity: Suspension and Expulsion in PreK

October 26, 2016

by Kate Abbott, Ph.D.

Expanding access to quality preschool has been a focus of recent policies at both the state and national levels.  The 2015 passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act includes federal support to states that can be used to expand access to quality prekindergarten.  Individual states have varied in their adoption of prekindergarten initiatives. Vermont, for example, has become a leader with Act 166 providing publicly supported prekindergarten to three- and four-year-olds across the state, making my state the second best in the nation for access to quality early education.

Yet the issue of equitable access to high quality preschool across the nation cannot be ignored. Barriers exist, and have been correlated to demographic indicators of poverty and race (Barnett, 2013).  More recently, the release of data by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights shows children with challenging behaviors may face additional barriers to quality prekindergarten due to disciplinary practices (Gilliam,

Suspension and expulsion deny children the very environment they need to develop appropriate social and behavioral skills. The longer children with unsafe and disruptive behaviors go without intervention, the more difficult it is to change behavior. (Walker, Ramsey,Gresham, 2004). So what we find is a link between suspension and expulsion and negative school outcomes, including increased dropout rates (Skilba,2000).

While suspension and expulsion is usually associated with adolescents, more than 5,000 preK students across the nation were “expelled” from public and private programs in the 2003-2004 school year (Gilliam, 2005) and these actions mirror in many ways the disproportionate rates of suspension and expulsion seen in K-12 systems for certain groups of students. Earlier this year, the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights released data demonstrating the disproportionate suspensions often observed in K-12 settings also occur in preschool, affecting some groups of children more than others. Some of the trends include:

  • Black preschool children are 3.6 times as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as white preschool children. While black children make up 19% of those enrolled in preK, they account for 47% of the preschool students suspended.
  • Boys are more frequently suspended from preschool than girls are. While boys are 54% of the enrolled pre K population, they represent 78% of preschool students suspended.

Yet, there is little or no evidence that suspension and expulsion have any benefit on the safety of school environment, or any meaningful impact on the likelihood the behavior will recur (Skilba, R., & Peterson, 2000).

So while Vermont can be proud of its leadership in preschool quality and access, we must acknowledge that children with some of the greatest needs are still unable to benefit. In 2003 and 2004 academic years, Vermont’s rate of preschool expulsion was reported to be 8.32 students per 1,000 enrolled–higher than 30 other states yet lower than neighboring states New York (12.67 students per 1,000), and Maine Head Start (24.31 students per 1,000). Such differences are caused not by needs and behaviors of students, but by the structure and approach of the prekindergarten system for intervening with those students.  While public-private preK partnerships in Vermont offer a wide variety of opportunities for families, it also makes coordination and consistency a challenge.

In a 2005 study, Gilliam reported that for-profit and other private prekindergartens were significantly more likely to report using suspension or expulsion than a public school or Head Start center. The study also found teachers who had regular access to behavioral and mental health consultation reported suspension and expulsion at the lowest rates, while those with infrequent or irregular access to consultation reported higher rates of expulsion, and those with no access to behavioral supports expelled children at the highest rate of all teachers in the study.

As our nation continues to expand access to preschool, policymakers and the preK community should keep in mind these evidence-based points:

  1. Children who exhibit challenging behavior have the best chance of learning appropriate social skills when they are identified early and provided with effective interventions (Loeber & Farrington, 1998).
  2. Children who are not able to access interventions before age 8 are much more resistant to change (Gresham, 1991).
  3. Schools and early education programs that are proactive and systemic in addressing the academic, behavioral and social emotional needs of students have greater success (Lane, Menzies, Oakes & Kalberg, 2012).
  4. A wealth of research exists identifying effective strategies for supporting students with challenging behavior at both a class and individual level (Lane, Menzies, Ennis, Bezdek, 2013).

Expulsion is a punishment no preschooler should have to experience.  Early childhood is an amazing stage of life, and in no other time in our life do we possess as much potential to grow and develop.  Let us not waste this opportunity for our children; let us work to ensure our children receive the best early education possible by using a proactive, systemic approach to building resilience, and find alternatives to preschool expulsion.

Kate Abbott, Ph.D. is Director of Early Education at the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union.  Supporting students with challenging behavior has been a career focus. Over the past fifteen years, Dr. Abbott has concentrated on supporting equity and access to a quality education for all learners through her work in the fields of curriculum and instruction, assessment, and special education.

Don’t Just Nod—Do Something

October 19, 2016

by W. Steven Barnett

Policymakers often sidestep complicated or controversial issues by nodding– to indicate how much they would really like to be on your side–then sighing loudly and, finally, remarking that, indeed, “The devil is in the details.”

Well, say hello to the “devil.”

Last year, more than 1200 researchers signed a consensus statement describing in some detail what quality early care and education looks like and why it’s a sound public investment.

Relying on an extensive body of research in education, developmental psychology, neuroscience, medicine and economics, they concluded that quality early childhood education programs produce better education, health, economic and social outcomes for children, families, and the nation.

The candidates of both major political parties have put forward policy proposals for early care and education. As the campaign continues, voters and the press, including moderators in the next debate, will have the opportunity to ask for more details. Research indicates the most important questions concern quality–what each candidate believes is good enough early care and education for every child and exactly what their policies will do to help parents obtain that quality early care and education for their children.

To help inform this debate, the National Institute for Early Education Research is once again highlighting this consensus statement on early learning and development opportunities for all young children. You can read the full letter and see the signatories here.

Key points include:
Too many US children fall behind before they even start school. This problem disproportionately affects the poor, but it afflicts many children from middle-income families, too.

Good early childhood care and education can address this problem, but only if it truly is high quality. Poor quality early childhood programs may actually widen the achievement gap. Most programs today are not high quality.

Quality requires well-trained teachers using proven curricula to engage children in interactions that stimulate learning while being emotionally nurturing, and fostering engagement in and enjoyment of learning. Teaching is enhanced by systematic, sustained, in-classroom coaching and mentoring.

When government supports high quality early childhood programs, evaluations find long-term effects improving important societal outcomes such as high-school graduation, years of education completed, earnings, crime and health. Rigorous cost-benefit analyses demonstrate that although these high quality programs are not cheap, the economic benefits can far outweigh the costs.

Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump campaigns have recognized the demand for quality early childhood education, and both have responded with proposals to help families access preschool programs. But the real question is what kind of programs will families access?

Given that many early childhood teachers now earn near poverty level wages and lack benefits provided to K-12 teachers, how will they ensure that well-qualified early childhood teachers can be hired and retained?

And how will they guarantee that taxpayer dollars are not spent on early care and education that is low to mediocre quality, as is the case with most of today’s subsidy dollars?

If the devil is in the details, well, maybe it’s time to raise a little hell.

W. Steven Barnett Ph.D. is director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University Graduate School of Education. NIEER conducts academic research to inform policy supporting high-quality, early education for all young children.

Learning from Leading States: Building P-3 Systems

October 14, 2016

by David Jacobson

In western Oregon, a regional early learning hub supports 30 partnerships of elementary schools, neighboring family childcare providers and community-based preschools focused on professional learning and family engagement.

In Lowell, MA, elementary schools, preschool centers, and family childcare providers working in the same neighborhoods participate in “communities of practice” to improve teaching and family engagement. In addition, the city’s P-3 Leadership Alignment Team developed a school readiness definition and strategy that is informing city health, social services, and education programs.

A  Community Innovation Zone in Harrisburg, PA recognized that a paucity of pre-kindergarten opportunities resulted in too many children entering kindergarten with no preschool experience. It responded by providing a summer bridge program offering not only activities and starter libraries for children, but also workshops for parents.

Such partnerships are not accidental. Each resulted from deliberate efforts by state education agencies (SEAs) to support quality improvement and alignment throughout the prenatal through third grade (P-3) continuum. This support includes grant programs funding local P-3 efforts and state policy work to align standards, develop formative assessments, and organize leadership and workforce development opportunities.

My recently published report, Building State P-3 Systems: Learning from Leading States, examines the P-3 work underway in Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, states that are part of a broader movement focused on improving quality and continuity across the P-3 continuum. Three overarching lessons for future state P-3 initiatives stand out.

1. Fuel Innovation at Local and Regional Levels
The case studies demonstrate that states can support P-3 innovation at the regional, community, and neighborhood levels. Each state made grants to communities to form P-3 partnerships, and these communities embraced the idea that in order to improve quality and alignment along the P-3 continuum, elementary schools, community-based preschools, and other early childhood organizations need to deepen their collaboration.

Across all three states we see cross-sector professional development for pre-k and kindergarten teachers, collaboration on curriculum, instruction and transitions, and new family engagement programs.

P-3 Partnership leaders in the case study states report that wooing school districts to participate in P-3 efforts was perhaps the most challenging aspect of their work initially. Yet many partnerships eventually established trust between school districts and community-based organizations and built enthusiastic buy-in among all stakeholders, including elementary school principals and district staff.

Oregon funded regional early learning hubs which, in turn, typically fund schools and feeder preschools. Pennsylvania has mostly funded partnerships at the school and feeder system level;  Massachusetts partnerships usually began at the community level. Some of Massachusetts’ community-level partnerships have sustained their efforts over time by hiring staff to facilitate the partnerships and oversee P-3 initiatives.

Experiences across the three states raise important design questions for future P-3 system-building efforts:
What are the pros and cons of building P-3 capacity at different levels: neighborhood, community, and/or region?
Given that many P-3 efforts begin by addressing the critical gap between preschool and kindergarten, how can states support communities in eventually expanding their efforts to include ages 0-3 and grades 1-3 as well?

2. Push for Lasting Impact
The initial activities that P-3 Partnerships pursue address critical professional learning, family engagement, and transition needs while also helping build trust, capacity, and buy-in among partnership members. Yet often these initial activities are not systemic enough to produce lasting change and are not provided at a high enough “dosage” to change adult practice in ways that lead to improved child outcomes.

States can encourage communities to develop a coherent set of strategies that will be mutually-reinforcing and systemic. States can also support deeper, more effective implementation by providing technical assistance and by bringing communities together for knowledge exchange across communities. Pennsylvania runs P-3 Governor’s Institutes every summer for community teams; Oregon brings its Early Learning Hubs together a couple of times a year; and Massachusetts hosts a series of four day-long institutes for P-3 teams from across the state.

3. Build State P-3 Infrastructure
As they adopted a P-3 lens, the case study states identified state policies that needed significant improvement. All three states aligned their learning standards from prekindergarten through third grade, and in Pennsylvania the alignment included infant and toddler standards as well. All three states also developed kindergarten entry assessments. Further, SEA leaders emphasized the important steps they took aligning social-emotional standards throughout the P-3 continuum.

The case study states also found they needed to create staff positions, new P-3 structures, and new working relationships across agencies. Oregon has a P-3 state specialist to coordinate grant funding and provide technical assistance to its regional early learning hubs. Pennsylvania likewise used RTTT-ELC funding to fund a number of positions that support its Governor’s Institutes and Community Innovation Zones. Massachusetts has created a Birth through Grade 3 Advisory Council bringing together state agencies and other critical stakeholders.

The Crucial Role of States
As the CEELO report demonstrates, SEAs played a critical role in the successful creation of P-3 systems in Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts —by improving state policies and by supporting local and regional early learning partnerships.

Through carefully crafted technical assistance and networking activities, SEAs can support P-3 system-building by helping to secure district commitment, encouraging communities to address the entire P-3 continuum, and planning for sustainability. Research suggests that there is no greater priority for the next wave of education reform efforts.

David Jacobson is a Senior Project Director at the Education Development Center and a partner with the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes. He provides technical assistance to states, districts, and communities on early education and care and writes the P-3 Learning Hub blog.


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