For the past 15 years of my career, I have attempted to better understand practices and policies that can effectively support the needs of students—all students.
Much of my research has focused on preparing teachers to educate black students effectively (I use black and African-American interchangeably throughout this Commentary), as these students tend to be grossly underserved in educational contexts across the United States and especially in urban environments. Most of my school-based research has been conducted in middle and high schools, and I was somewhat oblivious to the fact that serious educational disparities—structurally and systemically—start in preschool.
Having lived in the South and the North, I never could have imagined the kind of struggle and fight I would encounter to locate a preschool for my nearly 4-year-old twin daughters. As an African-American middle-class professor of education who studies urban education, my dilemma is straightforward: How do I advocate for and choose a preschool educational environment that prepares my daughters with social and academic skills to transition into grade school ready to learn and concurrently foster and cultivate their identities as black girls?
Put simply, I want my daughters to be school-ready, but I also want them to be proud of their African-American heritage and to develop an identity that embraces their language, history, hair, ancestry, and cultural roots in general.
In just two years, I have visited almost two dozen preschool facilities—searching for the “right” fit for my daughters. While many of these facilities have cleverly constructed brochures, websites, and marketing materials that celebrate racial and ethnic diversity, the reality I found is that many are not really racially and ethnically diverse, in terms of students, faculty, or staff.
My search, struggle, and fight to find the right preschool for my daughters has yielded unsatisfactory results as I have come to understand that disparity starts in preschool.
Most of the preschools I read about and had been encouraged to visit had a majority of white children and teachers. These institutions also were expensive—ranging from $12,000 to $32,000 a year. Their faculties mirrored the teaching demographics in public schools across the United States, where more than 80 percent of teachers are white while the nation’s schools reflect increasing racial and ethnic diversity among students.
One day, I promised my daughters to take them to the pool in our racially diverse neighborhood. As we changed into our swimsuits, they shared that they wanted me to take their hair down from their braided ponytails so that they could, in their words, wear their hair “like [their] friends at school.” (Both of my daughters are enrolled in preschool now.)
In essence, they were asking for their hair to be worn like that of their white friends. To be clear, my wife and I read bedtime stories to our daughters about the beauty of their hair and skin, encouraging them to love it and themselves, and we regularly comment to them on how beautiful they are. But on this day, they wanted hair like their white friends’.
Recently, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan released the 2011-12 Civil Rights Data Collection, at ocrdata.ed.gov, which allows online visitors to examine disparities between more-privileged students and those whose first language is not English, students of color, those who live in poverty, and those with disabilities. For the first time since 2000, the database provides current information on approximately 16,500 school districts, 97,000 schools, and 49 million students.
One of the most profound findings from the data is that, although African-American students represent about 18 percent of preschool enrollment, in the 2011-12 school year they made up 42 percent of the preschool students who were suspended once and 48 percent of those suspended more than once. These findings support my observations from my preschool search.
During one visit, I witnessed a group of five students (one black male, three white males, and one white female) playing together in a classroom. As I watched, the preschool teacher told “Jamal,” the black student: “You are too loud. Let’s use our indoor voice, please.” The teacher turned back to me and went on answering my questions. Soon, she turned again to the five youngsters, but again focused her words on one: “Jamal, you are too loud. I’m going to have to ask you to take a seat if you keep it up.”
I was stunned. What I observed was a group of five students yelling and not using their “indoor” voices. Yet, what this teacher heard was one student, Jamal. I wondered what this singling out did for and to Jamal’s self-concept, voice, and identity.
One evening as I read a bedtime story to my daughters, one of them whispered that one of their white classmates had told them they are “black” and that it was “a secret.”
Put simply, I want my daughters to be school-ready, but I also want them to be proud of their African-American heritage."
Although many believe race is irrelevant and inconsequential among young children, evidence simply negates these points. For instance, the pivotal work of Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s, which showcased a “white bias” among the children in their study of young children’s doll selection, demonstrates that young children do think about race even when adults do not have explicit conversations with them about it. In the famous study, black children frequently selected white rather than black dolls to play with and attributed more-positive traits to the white dolls.
More recently, CNN asked Margaret Beale Spencer of the University of Chicago to conduct an updated version of the Clark doll-test studies with black and white children. She and her research team found white bias among the 133 children (of both races) in the study.
Put simply, what these data reveal is that some black children internalize whiteness as being more intelligent, smart, and/or friendly. Moreover, what this research also reveals is that race matters, even for young children across ethnicities, because white bias can develop at an early age. However, racial-identity development is rarely on the curricular agendas in preschools, for either adults or children.
To be clear, I understand that it is virtually impossible for a preschool or any school alone to provide identity-development work for children. But I do believe it is preschool educators’ responsibility to contribute and build identity, as evidence has suggested that students’ academic and social development and performance are enhanced by their strong racial and ethnic identity.
Although the picture is complex and multifaceted, several immediate actions can be taken to address the challenges I have outlined.
First, we must educate the adults in preschools (teachers, directors, staff) so they can support students from all racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. At its simplest, faculty and staff development can facilitate work on how to truly diversify preschools, in terms of both staff and students.
Second, although many of the preschools I visited have scholarship opportunities for families in financial need, I saw no aggressive attempts to recruit such families. If preschools are committed to ensuring they enroll not only those children with the material means to attend them, they should be committed to sharing information with families who may not know about them and may not understand the financial-support options available.
Finally, these institutions need to study and emphasize not only facets of child development for academic and social development, but those related to racial and ethnic identity as well.
A version of this article appeared in the June 04, 2014 edition of Education Week as Racial Disparity Starts Early