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It’s hard to imagine: disciplining a 4-year-old by suspending him from pre-school. But traditional and charter schools in D.C. reportedly suspended 181 pre-K students during the 2012-13 school year. Legislation is in the works in the DC Council to ban preschool suspensions, but some educators say it’s a necessary tool for teachers who need to maintain a positive learning environment in the classroom. We explore the issues.
- Jennifer Frey Assistant Professor of Special Education and Disability Studies, Graduate School of Education and Development, George Washington University
- Kaitlin Banner Staff Attorney, The Advancement Project
- Emma Brown D.C. Education Reporter, Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAccording to a discipline report by D.C.'s office of the state superintendent of education, traditional and charter schools suspended preschool students 181 times in the 2012, 2013 school year. The report also showing that racial disparities in discipline are already evident as early as pre-K. The idea of suspending four-year-old shocked many including some on the D.C. council where legislation is now in the works to address discipline policies for young kids.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut as D.C. moves to expand pre-K to all students, some school administrators and teachers point out the challenge of maintaining a positive learning environment in a classroom of 20 or more students. And many say all tools, including suspension, must be available even in preschool. Joining us to discuss this is Emma Brown, D.C. education reporter for the Washington Post. Emma, good to see you again.
MS. EMMA BROWNGood to see you. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIKaitlin Banner is a staff attorney with the Advancement Project. Kaitlin Banner, thank you for joining us.
MS. KAITLIN BANNERThanks for having us.
NNAMDIAnd Jennifer Frey is a professor of special education and disability studies at the graduate school of education and development at George Washington University. Jennifer Frey, thank you for joining us.
MS. JENNIFER FREYThank you. Glad to be here.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments, I'm sure you have opinions, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Do you think schools should be allowed to suspend preschoolers who are as young as age 4, 800-433-8850? You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. Emma, tell us a little bit about the report on school discipline. What did it find in terms of preschool suspension?
BROWNSure. Well, this is something that advocacy groups have been working on and talking about for a long time but this is sort of the first -- the government's first comprehensive look at this issue. And so, as you said, they found -- this is the office of the state superintendent of education gathered data from D.C. public schools and from D.C. public charter schools and found that I think overall there were more than 10,000 suspensions. But 181 of them were in pre-K for 3 and 4 year olds. And so that was...
NNAMDIWhat sorts of offense might a preschooler be suspended for?
BROWNWell, the report was pretty -- was -- you know, said kids are being suspended for things that are developmentally appropriate, things like temper tantrums, you know, not being able to control their bladders in some cases. And then -- but school administrators say of course that there's some violence issues as well, things ranging from biting to hitting to, you know, anything making the classroom an uncomfortable or unsafe place for other students.
NNAMDIBy the way, we're also looking to hear from teachers or school administration -- administrators who feel suspension and other disciplinary tools are needed in some cases. So you can call too, 800-433-8850. Kaitlin Banner, black children who represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment make up 48 percent of all suspensions. Can you talk about the racial disparities in discipline?
BANNERSure. So nationally what we've seen...
BANNER...yeah, so those numbers are national numbers that came out in March from the office for civil rights from the Department of Education civil rights data collection. And nationally and here in the district we see that black children are suspended at much higher rates than their white peers. And we find that that's often for the same behavior, which is really concerning that the punishments are different for similar types of behavior across the board.
NNAMDIYou noted that in many cases the offense that gets a kid in trouble might be very vague. How does that contribute to the racial disparity we see across the board?
BANNERSure. So one thing that's really interesting is that when we have very objective offenses, something like let's say bringing a cigarette to school, it's very easy to tell that that behavior has occurred. Maybe who did that behavior, the cigarette was found on their person. And suspension disparities do not really exist at that level. But when we talk about offenses like things like being disruptive or being disrespectful, things that are going to be in the eyes of the teacher or the adult in the building, we see these racial disparities grow.
BANNERAnd so that suggests to researchers and to people who study this that there's really some implicit bias play here, that people are viewing those behaviors differently when they're coming from black children then when they're coming from white children.
NNAMDIJennifer Frey, developmentally are 3 and 4 year olds different from say kindergarten-age kids?
FREYWell, we know that there is a tremendous amount of variation within all children when it comes to development. And 3 and 4 year olds is a very important and critical time when we think about learning how to regulate our bodies and regulate our behavior and regulate our feelings. And having a secure and safe and consistent environment like an early childhood classroom setting is a very important environment for 3 and 4 year olds to be in as they're developing these social, emotional and self-regulation skills.
NNAMDIWhat effect does one or more children with social or behavioral issues have on a classroom of kids that age?
FREYWell, certainly that's a challenge for teachers when they do have children in their classroom who are engaging and challenging problem behaviors. But we do know from the research related to inclusion that it is beneficial for both children with and without disabilities or individual needs to be educated in the same environment when teachers have the resources and support and access to that support to support those children.
NNAMDIAnd in case we're giving the wrong impression, the data also showed that preschoolers are not the most likely students to be suspended.
BROWNCorrect, yes. In fact, the most likely to be suspended were middle school students. And they were far more likely, even then high school students, to be suspended. And I asked around a little bit about this and there's sort of a -- I used to be a middle school teacher and people -- you know, there's a lot of -- people will say, oh goodness, you know, and you could tell somebody used to work with middle schoolers because they have a reputation for being particularly -- at a particularly challenging part of their lives, right.
BROWNBut I think they're the -- it does beg a question about what's going on in 6th, 7th and 8th grade and with schools at 6th, 7th and 8th grade that so many kids are being -- you know, losing instructional time at that point.
NNAMDILegislation proposed in the D.C. Council took up the issue of preschool discipline. Talk about that.
BROWNSure. Well, this legislation was introduced by council member David Grosso who tells his own story about being suspended when he was in high school in Loudoun County. He -- it was a provision in a bill that he inserted that actually required this (word?) report in the first place. So when he saw the data he was troubled by the pre-K numbers. The bill would not ban all pre-K suspensions and expulsions but all except for those involving drugs, alcohol or the threat of serious bodily injury to another person.
NNAMDIKaitlin Banner, the racial disparities we mentioned earlier are part of the reason this is getting attention. We've heard of the school-to-prison pipeline. What kind of co-relation is there between out of school suspensions and the juvenile justice system?
BANNERThere's a really high correlation between out of school suspensions and the juvenile justice system. We know that young people who are suspended or expelled from school are missing out on instructional time, are missing out on that positive environment, missing out on positive relationships with adults. And that makes them perhaps more likely to engage in behaviors that will land them in the juvenile justice system.
BANNERWe also know that there are young people that are arrested in school for disciplinary incidents for things that used to be handled by the principal or by the teacher. Police are now being called in to deal with that. And so sometimes the school-to-prison pipeline also refers to students who land directly into the juvenile justice system because of arrests at school.
NNAMDIThis is the debate that's not happening in D.C. It mirrors what we reported earlier this year at the national level, showing that nearly 5,000 preschool students were suspended in the 2011, 2012 academic year, a year that stunned the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. It's my understanding that President Obama is focused on addressing disparities and outcomes for African American boys who are disproportionately affected by discipline measures. Is that correct?
BANNERThat is. Through the My Brother's Keeper initiative President Obama and his team are really looking at how suspension and expulsion, how involvement in the juvenile justice system is affecting the ability of our children to learn, to engage in school and to be successful.
NNAMDIWhat are some ways to address racial disparities in particular when it comes to discipline?
BANNERSo there's a couple of tools that schools can use, that teachers can use and that we can also look at from a legislative or a policy level. So first, bills like Council Member Grosso's are great because we're taking away the use of suspensions and expulsions for behavior that doesn't threaten, that doesn't involve serious incidences in school. And so by removing the possibility of use of suspension and expulsion for behaviors that can be handled by teachers that are nonviolent that don't threaten the safety of the school environment, we eliminate some of the bad effects that we know come with suspensions and expulsions.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. We're talking with Kaitlin Banner. She's a staff attorney with the Advancement Project about discipline in schools, especially as it effects children in pre-K classes. Emma Brown is the D.C. education reporter for the Washington Post. And Jennifer Frey is a professor of special education and disability studies in the graduate school of education and development at George Washington University.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Are you a teacher or in education? What are some challenges teachers face in keeping order in the classroom? Emma, managing 20 plus children who are under five years old in a classroom setting is a challenge as many school administrators and educators point out. What issues do they raise?
BROWNSure. Well, the first one is safety. School administrators and teachers, that's they're first priority, to make sure that their classrooms and their hallways are safe. And so, you know, folks have said to me that they just -- it's not that they're angling to kick kids out at the first drop of a hat, but that they need to have tools in their tool basket in order to make sure that their classrooms are safe. And also are orderly and learning environments.
BROWNYou know, the charter schools -- the head of the charter school board has talked to me about how -- and parents have talked to me about how sometimes they choose charter schools because they feel that they are stronger, they have stronger discipline rules and that their kids are going to, you know, not be distracted or endangered by other kids. So that's an important feature as parents are looking at schools.
NNAMDIWe were unable to include a teacher or administrator for this conversation mainly because of summer schedules. We may have a follow-up conversation but it's one of the reasons we're encouraging you, if you are a teacher and happen to be listening to this broadcast, to call now, 800-433-8850. Tell us some of the challenges that you face. You can also send email to email@example.com. Here we go to Laura in Bethesda, Md.. Laura, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LAURAYes. I was curious. You sort of touched on it a minute ago about what the expressed purpose for these suspensions are. Is it to punish or teach the children, to punish the parents of the children or to make life easier for the teachers? Because you just mentioned that it sounds like they were saying they want to make a safe, orderly school which safe I understand. Orderly and preschool, that's a little silly. And nonsense if they're suspending kids for bladder control issues. So I'm curious what they are saying they are doing this for, particularly when it comes to issues that are not violent.
BROWNI think there's a range of reasons. Again, the head of the charter school board, when I was writing the story about the bill, told me that some schools, for example if they have students -- very young students who are missing a lot of class will issue a one-day suspension in order to send a message to the parent figuring that if you have a child out for one day on that suspension, it may help encourage the parent to avoid missing a lot more absences later in the school year. So that was one explanation I've heard. Safety.
BROWNI mean, this may be a question for Jennifer, do 3 and 4 year olds really understand when they're suspended that they're being punished? And I've heard many folks say that they don't. They don't really make that connection. They just see it as a day off of school.
NNAMDIYou know, Emma does that every time she comes on the broadcast. She starts asking the questions that I should be asking instead of answering them, but that's one of the reasons we keep her coming back.
FREYWell, I think that raises a really good point, Emma. And I think what's really important to think about is what is behavior and what does behavior communicate. And often when children are engaging in what teachers may classify as challenging or disruptive or disrespectful behavior, there's a reason why they are engaging in that behavior. And it's our job to understand what that reason is and what they're communicating.
FREYAnd if the consequence is that they're sent home, it gives us less time to understand what they're communicating. And also that consequence may actually increase the rate of engaging in that behavior. If they're engaging in a behavior to escape a demand or an activity, that something that's too hard or they don't understand, and the consequence is that they get out of it, they're going to be more likely to engage in that behavior again.
FREYSo I think really thinking through why the child is engaging in the behavior in the first place, what did we do to set up a positive and supportive environment to reduce the probability that they would engage in the behavior and then, of course, what's the follow up.
NNAMDIWe've got more questions along that line and a lot of callers would like to get in on the conversation. However, we do have to take a short break. If you're on the line, stay there. We'll try to get your call when we get back. If you're having troubling getting through, send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're discussing discipline in schools with Jennifer Frey. She's a professor of special education and disability studies in the Graduate School of Education and Development at George Washington University. Emma Brown is the D.C. education reporter for the Washington Post. And Kaitlyn Banner is a staff attorney with the Advancement Project. We're encouraging your calls at 800-433-8850. I'll start with Nicole, in Rockville, Md. Nicole, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NICOLEHi. So what I just wanted to say was that, though I specialize in early childhood development…
NICOLE…and every single behavior that you have mentioned so far is entirely age appropriate, including hitting and biting and other violent acts at that age. Especially for bringing things into school that may be around their house. I heard cigarettes was mentioned…
NICOLE…kids pick things up. Kids take them where they want to go.
NNAMDII'm glad you brought up because, Jennifer Frey, we also hear that the teacher's intervention should be also age and developmentally appropriate for the child. What does that mean?
FREYWell, yes. We want to consider when a child is really able to do and what our expectations are in the classroom and make sure that our expectations as teachers, or as adults, are aligned with what a child developmentally is ready to do. Or what a child has already had an opportunity to learn how to do. So for some behaviors, especially social behaviors -- if we're looking at social skills -- sometimes children learn that through observations, but sometimes they have to be explicitly taught.
FREYSo it's important that teachers create a classroom environment that is supportive of social/emotional learning and development for all children, that has consistent routines and clear expectations and is responsive and teaches social skills.
NNAMDIWhat approaches and tools do early education teachers have when it comes to classroom management, including dealing with problem behaviors of an early age? You just mentioned a few of them.
FREYYeah, so some -- what is -- we really want to promote social and emotional confidence by having trained educators who have the support and resources to be effective, which includes having systems and policies that support the use of evidenced based practices. And these practices really fall on creating a high-quality, supportive learning environment. And we have routines and visual supports and clear rules and responsive teachers who also help three and four-year-olds learn how to interact with other three and four-year-olds.
NNAMDIYou say that how a young child behaves is a form of communication. Can you explain?
FREYSure. So when children engage in disruptive behavior or challenging behavior, there's often a reason behind it. And it's conveying some sort of message. It may be a message like, I need attention. It may be a message saying this is too hard or too easy or not interesting to me and I don't want to do it.
FREYSo escaping a demand or an activity or attention or seeking attention or seeking access to a toy, especially when children do not have the social or language skills to communicate their wants and needs, they often engage in these behaviors as a way to communicate.
NNAMDIThere's something called the pyramid approach in the classroom. What is that?
FREYSure. That's an approach related to social/emotional development and learning where we have a pyramid approach to identifying what practices we need and who might need more help. A data-driven approach, which requires assessment, but the pyramid essentially rests on having effective teachers and practitioners and systems, and then having universal practices and supports, like we've already been talking about today -- like classroom rules and visual supports and a positive safe, secure learning environment.
FREYAnd if that doesn't meet the needs for all children in the classroom, that we have more targeted social skills, goals and teaching strategies for the children in the classroom who need more support.
NNAMDIKaitlyn Banner, all that may be well and good and D.C. is moving toward universal pre-K. But some argue that universal pre-K is a bad idea because these kids are simply too young for teachers to manage in a classroom setting. That's what I think Deborah Simmons was arguing in a piece in the Washington Times. Is there merit to that argument?
BANNERYou know, that's one of the first times I've heard that argument. I think that universal pre-K is a wonderful thing. I think studies have shown that it's -- access to pre-K, access to education for young kids is really important in terms of their engagement and excitement about learning for their whole entire lives. And so I'm really excited about the steps that D.C. has made towards universal pre-K. I'm a D.C. resident and hoping to take advantage of that myself one day. So it's really exciting to hear about those things.
BANNERI do think that it does bring challenges. So I think we have to think about how to make sure that our educators are well supported, that we have classroom sizes that are manageable, that we have the tools and the resources that schools and teachers need in order to serve all kids in the best way possible.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Mary, in D.C., who said, "Emma's article noted that there are more suspensions in DCPS than charter schools. When my kids were in a traditional DCPS school we reviewed the suspensions and found that more than 40 percent of our suspensions were of the small percentage of kids transferred out of charters. Does the office of the school superintendent of education OSSE report track these students so we could find out if this anecdotal example is representative or an outlier?"
BROWNWow, that's a really good question.
BROWNSo I think that -- I don't know if they're doing that right now. But I do know that there is a data problem, where there's inconsistent data across all the different schools -- being collected across all the different schools in the city and being reported to OSSE. So part of what Grosso's bill does is try to improve that. And instead of just reporting numbers of students who are suspended, this bill would actually have schools reporting which students are suspended and what they're suspended for.
BROWNSo that -- OSSE has this huge data warehouse, tracking kinds of things about students, and that they hope that this will help them understand questions like that one. But also lots of other questions, like whether suspensions -- what kind of indicator a suspension is when it's given out at a young age. Like does that -- how much does that predict that student's future, as far as struggles in schools and maybe dropping out.
NNAMDIAnd Zac, in Annapolis, Md., has a question about data. Zac, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ZACThanks for taking my call. Yeah, so (unintelligible) whether technology has any role to play in this, in a sense of, you know, are there any tools out there for administrators, teachers and parents to the -- see data on behavior, sort of before it even gets to a suspension, but then also, you know, once discipline's actually merited out?
NNAMDIKaitlyn Banner, do you know?
BANNERI don't know off the top of my head a specific program. But I think that the data and the communication between schools and parents that you brought up is really important. We know sometimes that behavior can escalate if a student is not being responded to, if there's not interventions, if there's not the types of positive supports that Jennifer was talking about earlier, then a student's behavior may escalate.
BANNERAnd data about what's happening with that student, that technology that allows parents and schools to communicate in real time with frequency can really allow an intervention in that behavior to stop it before it becomes more serious.
FREYI agree with what Kaitlyn has said. And in special education specifically, we do collect a lot of data and share data with parents. And really having a strong home/school collaboration and relationship is really key to providing the overall support to the child. But, yes, absolutely. We want to be collecting data about what is happening before the behavior, when the behavior's occurring, and after the behavior. And collect that over time before and after intervention to really understand what we're doing before we have to -- we get to the extreme.
NNAMDIWe indicated that we wanted to hear from a teacher, and so we have Myra, in Arlington, Va. Myra, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MYRAYes. Hi. I have been an elementary school teacher for over 10 years. And while, you know, we understand and respect the individual rights of students, a lot of times I have found engaging those highly disruptive students comes at a cost to learning to the other students. The amount of energy, time and effort that I put in to controlling a highly disruptive student, cuts down on my ability to work with the others.
MYRAI've had -- been in schools where individual students have been so disruptive that staff members have been moved from their regular duties and assigned to that one individual child, to shadow them, to try to control them through the day to keep them in the classroom. And, again, that takes away from the time, the instructional opportunities available to the other students. When I'm in the classroom and I've got 25 kids, all with varying needs, but one consistently takes my time and energy because of discipline issues, that comes at a price to the learning of the others.
MYRAI've been in a situation -- I work in school districts that are very progressive and are aware of the racial disparities between suspensions and disciplines. And that also comes at a price. I've had African American and Hispanic students who have committed some, you know, pretty egregious things, but because of this notion of we want to keep our suspension numbers low, those incidents are typically addressed in any serious manner until it almost comes to expulsion level.
MYRAThere was a student of -- who fought quite often, got into physical fights. He got in-school suspension, a slap on the wrists and nobody did any defensive disciplining of the child until he brought a BB gun to school.
NNAMDII'm glad -- I'm glad you brought up defensive disciplining because I'm going to put you on hold, Myra, while we go to Katy, in Annapolis, who I think wants to raise the issue of available resources. Katy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATYGood morning -- or afternoon. So my question is mostly what resources do teachers have or will have with this proposal? If we're taking suspension, as an option, off the table, so to speak, then what other resources are being provided for teachers? Because so much of their time does end up spent on discipline, what resources do they have to help address that?
NNAMDIGlad you brought that up, Katy. We got an email from Jack, who says that he is a teacher. And that he appreciates the knowledge that our special education specialist brings to the table, that teachers need the resources to deal with disciplinary problems and the emphasis on instructional time. "But so much of this sounds like out-of-touch admin speak. She seems to think that we have access to an enthusiastic staff of counselors and psychologists at hand who would jump at the chance to aid teachers.
NNAMDI"These exist in education textbooks, but are rare in the real world of our under-funded public school systems." Is there going to be in the legislation suggested by David Grosso an attempt to fund the kind of resources that would be needed if suspensions are in fact to go away?
BROWNYou know, I don't think that funding is part of the bill. It is part of -- OSSE's report talks about the need for more technical assistance and more training, but it -- I'm so glad that these three have weighed in because I think that they present -- they really present the full range of arguments to why this bill is not a slam dunk and not a really easy -- an easy thing -- the whole argument is not -- or tension is not an easy thing to unwind.
BROWNThere are realities in the classroom that teachers are facing in trying to create a productive learning day and a productive learning environment for their kids, where, you know, just saying no more suspensions doesn't fix the underlying issues that they're facing every day.
NNAMDIJennifer Frey, the resources needed?
FREYYes. That is an important question and certainly a very real life issue that is true across the country. That's not a D.C. specific issue. Related to resources and time and support, both with people, with training and with materials. And that is something that needs to be addressed. The teachers do need the time and the support and the expertise to be able to create these environments that foster both academic and social/emotional learning for children.
NNAMDII want to get back to the racial disparity issue for a minute, Kaitlyn Banner, because we're talking about preschool, but many of these issues resonate across the grades. In fact, school systems across our region have been with discipline issues, and rolling back zero tolerance policies. Earlier this year, the Obama administration provided the first legal guidance on classroom discipline, aiming to address disparities in how students of different races are punished for breaking the rules. What kind of progress is it that these issues are now being looked at and addressed?
BANNERYou know, I think folks that are on the ground, people who are living in the communities and the schools have been experiencing these disparities, experiencing what we call the school to prison pipeline for a long time. So it's really heartening to see policy makers paying attention and policy makers making some changes into how we're thinking about the most effective ways to discipline our students.
BANNERI think something that's really important to note -- picking up on some of the comments that we've heard -- is that we're not saying that students shouldn't be accountable for these behaviors or that there shouldn't be consequences to those behaviors.
BANNERBut really, that our job as schools and our jobs as teachers, our jobs as community members, is to use discipline as a teaching tool so that young people from ages 3 all the way up to ages 18, you know, throughout our entire K through 12, pre-K through 12 system, are using -- are learning from their mistakes, are learning how to manage their behavior, learning what is socially acceptable, learning how to respond. And so that's an incredibly important part. But we know that suspensions aren't the most effective way to do that.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Kaitlyn Banner is a staff attorney with the Advancement Project. Thank you for joining us. Jennifer Frey is a professor of special education and disabilities studies at the Graduate School of Education and Development at George Washington University. Can you get a shorter title, please?
FREYI'll work on it.
NNAMDIThank you very much for joining us. And Emma Brown has a short title. She is D.C. education reporter for the Washington Post. Emma, thanks for joining us.
BROWNThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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