A Toxic Brew of Poverty, Race, and Preschool Suspension

Helen Ladd is not a bold-faced name in early childhood, but she should be. A Harvard-trained economist, and professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, she’s been a meticulous investigator of the relationship between socioeconomic status and academic achievement.


Several years ago, in her presidential speech to the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management, Ladd hit it out of the park with a data-packed critique of current education policy, which reflects a deep disregard for the impact of poverty on student outcomes, leaving educators and poorly resourced schools to pick up the slack. As she wrote in an op-ed with her husband Edward Fiske, the former education editor of the New York Times: “our policy makers mistakenly continue to reason that, since they cannot change the backgrounds of students, they should focus on things they can control.”

The two teamed up again last month, at EdNC, in the wake of the release of the letter grades for North Carolina’s schools, where they continued to sound the alarm:

The urgency of addressing the impact of poverty on achievement was highlighted earlier this month when the Southern Education Foundation released data showing that, for the first time in recent history, a majority (51 percent) of students in the nation’s public schools come from low-income families.  In North Carolina the proportion is even higher—53 percent.

Ladd and Fiske write that a renewed war on poverty would take too long—if we had the will to get it up and running, I’d add.  Which we don’t.  Since this is a variable they can’t control, the two keep hammering away at the “profound” failure of education policy.  It’s inflicting “widespread collateral damage,” they write, “in the form of narrowing the curriculum, low teacher moral, and in some cases…cheating by teachers and principals facing pressure to achieve impossible goals.”

Ladd has moved beyond the academy to co-found, a Broader Bolder Approach to Education, which calls for increased access to children’s mental health services and effective Common Core Standards that support the whole child. But she remains the consummate empiricist, and she continues to collect her data.

Last month, she and Duke colleague John Holbein published a paper, Accountability Pressure and Non-Achievement Student Behaviors.  They found that failure to make adequate yearly progress under NCLB—based on students’ performance on high-stakes tests—upped attendance and punctuality.  Their models also highlighted an uptick in misbehavior, including suspensions as well as sexual and other offenses that require reporting to law enforcement agencies.

With the academic pushdown that has accompanied the adoption of the Common Core, this phenomenon is rearing its ugly head earlier and earlier.  Last spring, the U.S. Department of Education’s survey of America’s public schools found “troubling racial disparities” among them access to preschool and the high rate of suspension of boys of color, who represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment but 48 percent of students suspended once.

Some of the above has to do with classroom practice terribly unsuited to little kids, the casualties of Common Core Standards that don’t support the whole child. Boys are especially vulnerable, as their development, including self-regulation, proceeds on a different timeline than that of girls. More rigid, prescribed kindergarten curricula and the absence of play or recess affect them even more deeply.

But these boys of color are also among the 36.9 percent of African-American children living in poverty—the highest rate of all groups tracked—with a load of toxic stress that would, and does, flatten, the most resilient adult. You’ve got a recipe for major acting out.  I mean, wouldn’t you be upset if you witnessed a shooting right in your front yard?

This  isn’t all about socioeconomics. Here’s what’s most toxic.   Last summer, Tunette Powell, an African-American mom of two, took to the media to talk about the repeated suspension of her sons from preschool—eight times, between the two of them.  The little ones had thrown a chair or spit, behaviors that Powell would not tolerate at home, but that are developmentally typical. They were deemed “a danger to the staff.” The other mothers—all white—were shocked. Why, all they’d gotten was a phone call when little Lucas misbehaved.

“Can you imagine someone calling and saying they suspended your preschool kid,” asked the moderator of a HuffPost Live segment that featured Powell and Gloria Ladson-Billings, who chairs the urban education department at University of Wisconsin, in Madison.  The professor nailed it: “Black boys,” she said, “don’t get to enjoy childhood for very long.”



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