Commentary: Urgent Steps Are Necessary to Address Implicit Bias in Early Education  

Top Row:  Khieem Jackson, Jason Henderson, Ayo Taylor. Dr. J.Luke Wood. 
Bottom Row: Dr. Joseph F. Johnson, Chad Owes, Adonai Mack and Khaim Morton.

Black Men for Educational Equity | Special to California Black Media Partners  

The school to prison pipeline starts as early as preschool for our youngest Black learners.

According to the U.S. Department of Education (2016-2017), Black children face issues with preschool access and exclusion, and are prone to receive harsher discipline than non-Black students who display the same behavior. 

Statistics show that Black children are 15% of the K-12th grade student population; however, they are 36% of students suspended at least once. Too many Black early learners are bounced around between multiple preschools or childcare programs like urban nomads.

During the height of the George Floyd protests, a group of African American men with professional experience in education, policy, research and social work formed Black Men for Educational Equity (BMEE) to address implicit bias in early education. Over the last five months, BMEE examined the disparities and inequalities that exist in the system for young Black children and have created a plan of action for addressing these systemic issues.

To combat this problem, BMEE is calling on the California Legislature to ensure that Black preschoolers are not excluded from important educational components and success through implicit bias and structural racism. Having access to quality preschool, fair treatment in the classroom, and equal opportunity for success are all crucial components in helping our Black preschool students succeed now, and for generations to come. 

Too often, the three “B’s” predict a preschooler’s risk of expulsion: “big, Black and boy.” Black children are expelled at twice the rate of white children, particularly if they are bigger or taller than their peers. Research reveals this is less about the physical characteristics of the child and more about what is going on in the teacher’s mind, than what the child is doing. Although there is great need in California for preschool and childcare services, preschool is not compulsory.  

Preschools in California currently can exclude students prior to even attempting to teach them based on subjective behavioral expectations. These unfounded behavioral expectations are often fraught with implicit bias and hidden from research as providers are not required to track or report reasons for exclusion, expulsion, or suspension. It is tantamount to expulsion without any process or notice of rights, and contrary to long term public policy.  

 Young Black children, particularly Black boys, are too often victims of an education system that fails them and stifles their potential to succeed. When Black children are held to different standards for learning and behavior and even worse, higher standards are seen for them in preschool, it furthers the systematic racial divide. 

“It is important early education staff shift from destructive approaches to discipline and towards research-informed best practices,” commented Dr. Judy D. White, Riverside County Superintendent of Schools. “The Research is clear that when teachers are supported with resources and evidence-based training, preschool can help young children build crucial social-emotional and pre academic skills. A child’s ability to successfully navigate social and emotional learning at a young age is a major factor in educational success.  Exclusionary discipline such as suspension isolates the children most in need of social-emotional development, and results in poor educational outcomes. We want all preschoolers to experience an inclusive and welcoming learning environment.” 

While legislators have made efforts to address preschool accountability, such as AB 752 by Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio (D-Baldwin Park) which proposes a series of interventions and referrals before expelling a child, there remains a hole the size of Mount Everest in California’s early learning accountability and teacher training system.     

California should establish developmentally appropriate policies and structures to provide support to preschool providers by clarifying definitions for suspension and expulsion in preschool and providing due process.  Due process should come before any sort of expulsion to help ensure disciplinary practices are not abused. It is long past time for California to take measurable action to eliminate exclusionary practices that contribute to the preschool to prison pipeline. 

Preschool providers should collect and track data on rates of expulsion and suspension in early learning and preschool settings. At a minimum, four dominant categories should disaggregate the data. They are: sex, race, ethnicity, and disability status. Information could be housed locally and by the state. Preschool providers should also be required to provide due process before kicking a student out. 

“California’s early learning and care system continues to suffer from historic and structural racism and sexism,” according to Dr. Mary Ann Dewan, Santa Clara County Superintendent of schools. ”Policies and procedures such as incentivizing providers to expel children who are deemed ‘problematic’, paying a higher reimbursement for part-day preschool than full-day preschool and directing CalWORKS recipients to lower-quality childcare programs serves to perpetuate the inequities caused by structural racism and sexism.  Now that we know better, it’s time to do better.” 

 “BMEE is here to shake up the system and not maintain the status quo,” said Khaim Morton, owner KRM Strategies and BMEE Member. KRM strategies specializes in the advancement and application of comprehensive legislation and government affairs strategies. “All Black children deserve an opportunity to succeed. Research shows that implicit bias demonizes Black children before they get to kindergarten. BMEE’s vision is to remove stigmas that Black preschoolers are subjected to and support policy solutions.” 

About the Authors 

BMEE is a group of African American men with professional experience in education, policy, research and social work.

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