Disenrollment in early childhood education – Part 1: A failure of our system

Current research shows that when children are suspended or expelled from preschool, it can have a negative effect on their lives and on the community in general.

When advocating for more early childhood education programs, we often use the argument that quality preschool education is an investment in the future. Beginning with the results of the Perry Preschool Project study, advocates have cited numerous research that supports the positive effects of quality early childhood education. Benefits include educational outcomes that are encouraging such as fewer children dropping out of school and more students graduating from high school. There are social benefits, as well, that make life better for the former preschoolers and the community. For example, as they became young adults, these children who completed early childhood education programs were less likely to be on welfare and less likely to be incarcerated in our prisons. It is a typical argument that we use.

“Every dollar we put into high-quality early childhood education, we get $7 back in reduced teen pregnancy, improved graduation rates, improved performance in school, reduced incarceration rates. The society as a whole does better.” -President Obama, Remarks at Working Mothers Town Hall, Charlotte, N.C., April 15, 2015

The flip side of those outcomes are the social costs. Each year, hundreds of children are expelled or disenrolled from preschool. Current research shows that when children are suspended or expelled from preschool, it can have a negative effect on their lives and on the community in general. These children do not get the current benefit of a preschool education nor do they have the same chances of enjoying the future benefits – protective factors for poverty, crime and a more stable life. For example, Walter Gilliam, director of the Edward Zigler Center for Child Development at Yale University, cites a study reporting that children expelled from preschool have a 10 times greater chance of dropping out of high school.

Further, Gilliam’s own study in 2005 confirmed that the preschool expulsion issue is connected to racial/ethnic bias and gender bias. African-American boys make up 18 percent of the preschool population, but represent 48 percent of the expelled children. For these children, early childhood education as an intervention against poverty and racism is just not working.

Gilliam goes on to report that the length of the classroom day, child to adult ratios and teacher stress also seem to have an effect on disenrollment rates. His study noted positive correlation between these three factors and the rate of disenrollment:

  1. The longer the day, the higher the rate of disenrollment.
  2. The higher the ratio of children to adults, the higher the rate of disenrollment.
  3. The higher the stress reported by teachers, the higher the rate of disenrollment.

One of the conclusions we might draw from this information about disenrollment rates is that lower quality early childhood education is failing some of our most vulnerable children. While most of the children in these classroom are able to adjust and finish the program, some of the children who are least able to self-regulate are left by the wayside. These are the children that challenge us the most, and they may be the children who will go on to challenge our society the most – adults who are unemployable, adults who resort to crime, adults who never get the help they need to become productive citizens.

In a recent NPR interview with a death-row inmate, a poignant story was told. The inmate met with lawyer Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of Equal Justice Initiative, a few hours before his execution. He told Stevenson that more people had asked him, “How can I help?” in the last 14 hours of his life than had asked in the first 18 years of his life. To us, this seems like a sad comment on early childhood education. We can do better.

This is the first article in a two-part series from Michigan State University Extension. Read Part 2 at: Disenrollment in early childhood education – Part 2: Expulsion reduction strategies and resources.

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