Rosemarie Allen, lecturer of Early Childhood Education at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, knows a thing or two about school suspensions.
Throughout her childhood, Allen was suspended from school, by her own admission, five to seven times a year. By the time she graduated high school, she had been expelled from three different schools in total.
“It was the strangest thing,” said Allen in a Monday interview with Chalkbeat Colorado, “because I knew instinctively I wasn’t bad and I couldn’t figure out why I kept getting in trouble.”
Allen was a smart, curious young girl. She dug holes in the ground to see if she could dig one deep enough to reach China, as her teacher suggested. She pulled apart dolls to discover how body parts fit together. She climbed on the roof of her school auditorium to observe the playground from a birds-eye view. Her actions were mostly innocent, childhood endeavors, but she consistently found herself suspended nonetheless.
Her curious nature in childhood has since developed into an academic curiosity in adulthood, one that’s focused on understanding why some students are more likely than others to be suspended from school. Specifically, her research concerns understanding the links between race and approaches towards school discipline in preschool and elementary age children. Her findings are a cause for concern.
Suspension and Implicit Racial Biases
Allen’s newest research concerns trends of disciplinary action associated with our nation’s youngest students: those in early childhood education programs. While popular conceptions of suspension might be associated with older students, Allen’s research highlights a significant increase in the number of students being suspended in preschool. Additionally, her findings show students of color are the most vulnerable group when it comes to suspension.
Some of the statistics Allen highlights are startling. Allen cites a wide body of research showing that students in early childhood programs are the most affected out of any age group when it comes to suspension and expulsion policies. For example, a 2005 Yale University study found that preschoolers were expelled at three times the rate of students in kindergarten through 12th grade, combined. A disproportionate amount of these suspensions affect students of color. The same study found that African-American students in state-funded prekindergarten programs were twice as likely to be suspended than their Latino and Caucasian classmates. In 2012, U.S. Department of Education data revealed that African-American children in early childhood programs were 48 percent more likely to be suspended from school than white students. Trends show the number of suspensions has been increasing over time. Allen told ThinkProgress that “over the past 40 years, suspension rates for black students had quadrupled in some areas of the country.”
Why is this happening? Allen offers us some answers. To start, she highlights historical changes in the teaching profession that account for a change in the racial makeup of schoolteachers. After the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, numerous black educators were either fired, let go, or told not they need not apply as a result of many white parents voicing their concerns over having black educators teach their children in newly integrated districts. The displacement of black educators resulted in an influx of teachers from white, middle-class backgrounds, many of whom meant well but were ill-equipped to understand students of color in the classroom. Allen posits that this shift might account for the trends observed by many education researchers. In the first major study of the link between race and teacher behavior conducted after Brown v. Board of Education, researchers found that teachers were treating blacks students less favorably than white students, with gifted black students subjected to the most criticism out of all groups observed.
Allen believes that most teachers nowadays mean well, but that the problems students of color are currently facing are more closely associated with implicit, as opposed to explicit, teacher biases. Most teachers aren’t seeking to discriminate against their students, and most aren’t intentionally targeting students for suspension based on race. However, many teachers unfortunately still have underlying racial biases that they might not even be aware of. These implicit biases are often harder to identify and harder to correct.
The effects of these disciplinary actions on our nation’s youngest students are significant and enduring. In her forthcoming dissertation, Allen describes this phenomenon as the “Preschool-to-Prison Pipeline.” When students begin to feel that they aren’t welcome in school very early on in their educational career, it can have dramatic effects on their educational achievement down the road. Allen herself recalls how her repeated suspensions resulted in strained relationships with her teachers. She believes other students likely experience similar difficulties, leading to disengagement and disillusionment in the classroom. Additionally, out-of-school factors likely aggravate the impacts of school suspensions, creating a vicious cycle that leaves children of color vulnerable to falling behind in school. African-American children are more likely return to food insecure households after school, and they are the most likely to live in poverty out of any demographic group in the United States.
Racial disparities in classroom treatment and disciplinary enforcement have been well-documented over the years. Unfortunately, it’s not a new phenomenon. ThinkProgress has previously reported on racial disparities in charter school suspension rates, as well as how racially biased disciplinary practices affect the college admissions process.
Moving Forward: What Can Be Done?
While the challenges facing students of color are deeply rooted, Allen believes that with the right tools, teachers and school administrators can make tangible progress in creating better educational environments. Allen identified a few efforts that could improve the classroom experience for both schoolchildren and those who teach them.
We want to empower people to act on their biases and address them.
Allen believes that schools should only reserve harsh disciplinary actions for the most extreme circumstances. Students are frequently suspended, expelled, or even arrested for transgressions that are often just examples of students acting out. The increased presence of security officers in schools has likely exacerbated this situation. Allen cites a case from earlier this week, in which a 6-year-old girl was handcuffed for stealing candy off her teacher’s desk, as an example of schools overreacting to minor incidents. Allen stresses the need to distinguish between truly dangerous incidents and those that are simply related to “kids being kids.”
Allen also stressed the importance of effectively training teachers to recognize their own biases and challenge their previously-held assumptions. Allen believes current methods employed in cultural competency training are helpful, but they often don’t go far enough in addressing implicit biases teachers might have about students of color. She noted that the current “hodgepodge” of training programs aren’t coordinated nor are they comprehensive, leaving many teachers without the tools they need to make positive changes. Her research suggests that coordinated training programs aimed at promoting personal reflection and implementing plans of action for addressing implicit biases are more likely to be highly effective in changing classroom dynamics.
Allen also thinks the way information about implicit biases is currently being conveyed often leaves many teachers disillusioned. The key, says Allen, is to empower teachers. “We have to deliver information in a way that people hear it and understand it,” she told ThinkProgress. “We don’t want to make people feel guilty [about their biases], we want to empower people to act on their biases and address them.”
Bryan Dewan is an intern at ThinkProgress.