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As we expand universal access to preschool, let’s ensure that teachers reflect the ethnicity of their students

Preschoolers build a structure from interconnected plastic tubes.

Source: Allison Shelley for American Education

Original author’s text: As universal preschool access expands to include more families of color, unequal practices such as racial bias, exclusionary discipline, and lack of cultural representation are exacerbated, leading to a crisis for Black boys

As California moves toward universal prekindergarten access, there is a growing need to train, hire, and retain male early childhood teachers who are racially and ethnically representative of the children in their classrooms. A study examining implicit bias and expulsion rates among prekindergarten teachers found that teachers spent significantly more time observing black children, especially boys, than children of other races when predicting problem behavior. Additionally, researchers found that public prekindergarten teachers’ systematic use of exclusionary discipline, such as suspensions and expulsions, disproportionately affects black children, with black boys being expelled more often than anyone else.

In an effort to reduce the number of suspensions and exclusions, last year the California Department of Education issued a bulletin announcing new requirements for the California State Preschool Program (CSPP) that no longer allow providers to suspend, expel or force parents and guardians to pick up children early from school because of behavior. This is a step in the right direction. However, not all California preschool programs are funded by the state program, so many do not have to follow these guidelines.

The good news is that the positive effects of providing students with teachers of the same race as themselves can occur in all programs, regardless of funding sources. I propose that schools and agencies recruit and train male teachers who match the racial and ethnic backgrounds of the communities they represent.

As a Black woman and certified early childhood teacher for over 15 years in San Joaquin and Sacramento counties, I have witnessed Black children between the ages of 3 and 5 being suspended in school or out of school because the teacher did not have the necessary skills or cultural competencies to work with them. I was often the person other teachers sent their children to when they were struggling. Although I had no additional or specialized training, I was often able to effectively help children reset and return to their classrooms calmly. I once worked with a Black teacher who was more effective than me in this regard, especially with boys.

Overall, our success was evidence of the mutual understanding and respect that same-race teacher-child has. Perhaps from a child’s perspective, there is a certain familiarity in our appearance or mannerisms. Whatever the reason, such experiences speak to why black children need teachers with whom they can identify.

As it is, in many places, public preschool curriculum, as well as in public K-12 schools, has long ignored black history and culture. This is confirmed by the state preschool curriculum framework developed by the California Department of Education in accordance with the K-12 Common Core state standards. The authors of California Preschool Learning Foundations, Volume 3, History-Social Science, acknowledge that “the developmental research on which this framework is based is replete with studies of English-speaking, middle-class European American children” and that “fewer studies have focused on children who speak other languages ​​or come from other family, racial, or cultural backgrounds.”

Training and hiring teachers and staff who represent the racial and cultural communities they serve is beneficial because they build stronger connections with students by incorporating culturally relevant pedagogy that is not typically offered in the typical school curriculum. This was my approach when I opened a child care center specifically for Black families. I found that children engaged more with the educational content when they could relate to it. For example, children expressed greater interest in reading materials and spent more time in the classroom library looking at books when they saw characters they could identify with. And the boys in my program were particularly fond of my teenage son.

Results from a 2023 longitudinal study of early childhood that followed more than 18,000 students in the U.S. suggest that children in a classroom with a teacher of the same race performed better in science, math and reading, and on tasks requiring working memory. In addition to the increased positive benefits of matching teachers and students of the same race, there were also reduced negative outcomes. According to researchers from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, who analyzed 10 years of data, black students were less likely to be suspended when they had a teacher of the same race.

We cannot ignore the fact that Black children are disproportionately suspended and expelled from preschool. It is also true that their communities are underrepresented in the curriculum and by teachers of the same race. To achieve better social and academic outcomes for this vulnerable group, early childhood education spaces need more Black male teachers.

It is a call for state agencies and schools to invest in the community by training and hiring educators who reflect the student population they serve. It is a call for families and community members to volunteer their time at local preschools and early childhood centers.

As universal pre-kindergarten becomes a reality in California, the rest of the country is sure to follow. To support all children in pre-kindergarten, diversifying the teaching workforce is now critical.

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Sajdah Asmau is the owner of an African American child care facility. She is a first-year doctoral student in education at UC Davis and is a Public Voices Fellow for Racial Justice in Early Childhood through the OpEd Project in partnership with the National Black Child Development Institute.

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