By Michelle Tullo
WASHINGTON, DC (IPS) – In the United States, African American children continue to face more barriers to success than any other race, new research suggests.
A new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation lists 12 categories that can contribute to a child’s success, including enrolment in preschool, living with two parents and distance from the poverty line. Under these metrics, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders scored highest (with a total score of 776 out of 1000), followed by whites (704).
African American children not only scored the lowest under this ranking, but with a score of just 345 they were found to have less than half of the indicators for potential success as other races in the United States.
“We know that the current status of poor kids is bad, the current status of black kids is bad, and the combination of poverty and racial discrimination is particularly toxic,” David Osher, vice-president of the American Institute for Research, told IPS. “But we also know enough to make a difference, like the emerging understanding that kicking kids out of schools is not a good solution.”
Osher refers to new civil rights-related data released by the U.S. Department of Education last month. These findings suggest that African American students are being suspended from school at inordinate levels, even at the very earliest grades.
While a fifth of public preschool students in the United States are African American, nearly half of all preschool students who received more than one out-of-school preschool suspension are African American. White students, on the other hand, represent 43 percent of public preschool enrolment but make up just 23 percent of preschoolers given out-of-school suspension.
“This data collection shines a clear, unbiased light on places that are delivering on the promise of an equal education for every child and places where the largest gaps remain,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said on releasing the new data. “In all, it is clear that the United States has a great distance to go to meet our goal of providing opportunities for every student to succeed.”
The study marked the first time that a federal initiative known as the Civil Rights Data Collection included preschool, but the numbers reflect similar trends at all levels of lower and secondary school.
“Black children are not behaving worse,” Jim Eichner, the managing director of programs at the Advancement Project, an advocacy group, told IPS. “But they are being punished and punished more severely.”
While the reasons children are suspended in preschool are not reported, anecdotally such actions appear to be being taken for relatively minor infractions, such as like “not paying attention, being late or talking back,” Eichner says.
Out-of-school suspension has multiple and varied negative impacts on the student and school community. Not only do students miss class time, but they tend to receive the message they are not welcome in school.
Such actions also tend to create new mistrust between the student and teachers that can challenge future learning.
In addition, out-of-school suspension can jeopardise a family’s income if a parent needs to leave work. Or, if a parent cannot leave work, the child may not be sent to a well-supervised home.
Finally, some advocates worry that excluding a child fails to teach him or her how to manage the behaviour that originally caused the problem.
Suspending children at such a young age comes from a “zero tolerance” discipline policy. Such an approach stems from anti-drugs policy adopted by the U.S. criminal justice system during the 1980s, and brought into schools as an attempt to combat increased violence and school shootings.
Yet the broader approach has been seen as something of a failure by the U.S. criminal justice system, a view increasingly being adopted by those working in the school system, as well.
Both Osher and Eichner, for instance, are involved in studying and promoting alternatives to zero-tolerance policies. Eichner particularly points to restorative justice techniques that have students work together to mend any problems, adding that punitive atmospheres have been found to harm all students.
Although the Civil Rights Data Collection does not investigate why these disparities occur, Osher and Eichner both explain that this is one effect of overarching social, economic and political structures.
“There are disparities in all aspects of youth life: education, juvenile justice and corrections, health. When you control for any of the explanations people come up with, they don’t work,” Osher says.
“It’s not just poverty, not just that black kids are worse behaved. It is important to see that there is something going on that is pervasive, chronic and systematic.”
He notes that here are several characteristics related to classrooms from which more kids are suspended. These include class size, the ratio between teachers and students, teacher stress levels, and the availability of mental health consultation.
Both Osher and Eichner also note the role of implicit bias in teachers.
“People can be very well-intended, but in moments of stress they can make a subtle set of calculations that are probably intuitive on whether to get more help or whether to tell the kid to get out,” said Osher.
This implicit bias appears to be particularly notable when dealing with young black preschool students. Researchers have found, for instance, that people tend to overestimate the age of black students, adding as much as three years, thus perceiving the student as less childlike and less innocent.
The first step in ending implicit bias is to name it and talk about it, scholars say.
Some are working on “peer coaching” models, for instance, in which teachers film themselves teaching. Peers can then point out ways a teacher might be acting with bias – and recommend ways to overcome it.
New approaches like this make Osher optimistic that today’s ongoing racial disparity can be decreased.
“These indicators don’t have to be predictors of the future,” he says. “Rather, they’re indicators for what public policy should do.”