Preschools are expelling youngsters at three times the rate of public schools, according to a nationwide study by Yale researchers, prompting concerns that children are being set up for educational failure at a very young age.
The first nationwide study of expulsion rates in state-supported preschools, scheduled for release today, found that boys are being thrown out of preschool 4 1/2 times as frequently as girls. African American preschoolers are twice as likely to be expelled as white or Latino children, and five times as likely as Asian Americans. Twice as many 5-year-olds face the ultimate sanction for bad behavior as 4-year-olds.
"These 3- and 4-year-olds are barely out of diapers," said Walter Gilliam, an assistant professor of child psychiatry and psychology at Yale University and author of the report "Prekindergarteners Left Behind." He said the lack of support for troubled youngsters could lead parents to "view their child as an educational failure well before kindergarten."
Teacher training faulted
Los Angeles-based child development expert Karen Hill-Scott said the study provided scientific validation for the impression conveyed by the popular television show "Supernanny" "that there are a lot of out-of-control children out there." But she and other experts put much of the blame for the high expulsion rate on teachers and administrators rather than on children.
Child-care experts said that many expulsions could be avoided with better teacher training and greater support from psychologists and social workers. They noted that most states spend less than $5,000 a year per preschooler, compared with average per-pupil spending of more than $9,500 for other students.
Several states, including Virginia, strongly disputed the Yale data, saying that information obtained from surveys of preschool personnel may not be comparable to records kept by public school systems. Several experts in early childhood education who have seen the study, however, said its conclusions are valid.
The study of 3,898 preschools in 40 states made little attempt to identify the types of behavior that cause children to be expelled, or why teachers and administrators in some preschool systems report higher expulsion rates than others. But it noted that the likelihood of expulsion is greater in for-profit child-care centers than in public schools, and is cut in half when teachers have access to "behavioral consultants."
‘A rough age’
Anecdotal evidence collected by Gilliam suggests a wide range of antisocial behavior among preschoolers, from the child who cut computer cords as a way to "liberate the mice" to the 4-year-old who had a bag of marijuana in his backpack. The most frequent grounds for expulsion, child-care experts say, is aggression toward other children in the form of kicking, biting and hair-pulling.
"It's a rough age," said Amy Wilkins, who heads pre-kindergarten research at the Education Trust, a Washington child-advocacy group, and is herself the parent of a preschooler. "It's a time when children are just beginning to learn how to cooperate with other people, and negotiate social settings with their peers, not just demand, demand, demand. That's why it is so important that teachers be properly trained."
The Yale researchers reported widely different expulsion rates among state-supported preschool programs, ranging from zero expulsions per 1,000 students in Kentucky to more than 21 in New Mexico. Expulsion rates were higher in Virginia (10 per 1,000) than in Maryland (6 per 1,000). Officials responsible for preschool programs in the District did not respond to repeated requests for information, Gilliam said.
Findings called ‘wildly unrealistic’
Julie Grimes, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Education, said the Yale data for the state appeared "wildly unrealistic." She said the great majority of the state's pre-kindergarten programs are in public schools and had reported no expulsions of preschoolers during the years 2002-04, the period covered by the Yale survey. New Jersey and Texas officials also disputed the findings.
Gilliam said the discrepancies could be due to differing definitions of the term "expulsion." The Yale survey asked randomly selected teachers whether they had asked children to leave the class over the previous 12 months for disruptive behavior. Based on these responses, he calculated a nationwide expulsion rate among preschoolers of 6.67 per 1,000, compared with 2.09 per 1,000 for public school students in kindergarten through Grade 12.
The higher expulsion rate for preschoolers can be explained in part by the lack of statewide disciplinary policies, Gilliam said. Unlike K-12 schools, preschool programs are generally voluntary, and teachers and administrators are able to expel disruptive students with a minimum of paperwork.
Although researchers differ sharply over the scale of the problem, there was no disputing the negative impact that the expulsion of a preschooler can have on families. Keri Wagner of Cheyenne, Wyo., said she had to quit her job as a loan officer after her son Todd, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was expelled from a series of private preschools for fighting with other students.
"There is a huge, huge need out there," Wagner said. "You have to go through so many hoops to find a place that is equipped to deal with children like Todd."