Addressing Policy Implications of Research on “Racial Literacy”

The title of the talk was “Cultivating Racial Literacy.” The speaker was Dr. Howard Stevenson - the keynote at the 2016 Partner Summit of the Alliance for Early Success.

But he’s not an expert in early childhood policy or research. Dr. Stevenson is a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, with a doctorate in clinical psychology. So what was he doing talking about race with two hundred early childhood advocates and policy wonks?

Most of Dr. Stevenson’s talk focused on his work helping people develop “racial literacy,” which he defined as “the ability to read, recast, and resolve racially stressful encounters.” And it all begins with being able to recognize the role that race can play in an interaction and to shift one’s own emotional reaction to it from a typical “fight, flight, or fright” response to a healthier, more constructive one.

What does this have to do with early childhood policy and advocacy? Quite a bit, actually. Consider this:

  • Black children make up 19 percent of all preschool enrollment, but almost half of all children who were suspended more than once. Black preschoolers are also 3.6 times more likely to be suspended at least once when compared to White children.
  • A recent study from Yale University found that early childhood educators – both White and Black – tend to pay attention to black children (especially boys) more when they are looking out for potential behavioral problems in a classroom.
  • The same study suggests that White teachers may hold Black preschoolers to a lower behavioral standard than White children, while Black teachers tend to recommend harsher punishment for all misbehaving children.

The influence of racial biases – whether conscious or unconscious - could very well have negative consequences for young children of color, not only in terms of how they’re disciplined, but also their learning and social-emotional development. And that calls for action from advocates and policymakers. Here are just a few implications that “racial literacy” and a focus on equity may have for early childhood policy and advocacy organizations like the Alliance for Early Success and its partners.

  • Advocates and policy leaders focused on incorporating diversity or cultural responsiveness into statements of early childhood core competencies should ensure that they go beyond “valuing” and “respecting” diversity and articulate racial literacy skills that are “behavioral, measurable, and replicable.” Dr. Stevenson’s emphasized that racial literacy is a specific set of skills rather than morality or character. In an early learning setting, these skills can help educators and other early childhood professionals “read” children’s behaviors more effectively, “recast” the interaction in a more informed light, and “resolve” the situation in a way that helps children grow and learn.
  • Integrating racial literacy into coaching and other professional learning opportunities can help the early childhood workforce serve an increasingly diverse population more effectively.  This kind of professional support can help all professionals – regardless of their racial, income, or linguistic background -  check their own biases and assumptions, understand the range of factors that can contribute to children’s behaviors, and equip them with more informed strategies that meet the needs of all children.
  • The research on implicit bias suggests that a diverse workforce matters. Early childhood professionals who have greater understanding about children’s families and home environments have more empathetic views of their behaviors in the classroom. Often, that understanding comes from sharing similar backgrounds as the children one is working with. Policymakers and advocates can help by developing comprehensive strategies to recruit and retain a workforce from diverse backgrounds and support their career advancement. These strategies include better compensation, accessible professional development opportunities, scholarships and grants, and more supportive higher education policies and programs.

Many of the Alliance’s state and national partners are hard at work to address these issues:

  • The Children’s Alliance in Washington State and the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families are working to ensure that implementation of early learning policies, like QRIS, incorporates standards and practices that speak to the distinct needs of low-income and/or racial and linguistically diverse children and, at the same time, mitigate barriers to success for these children and the providers who serve them.
  • Advocates from the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Clayton Early Learning, and Executives Partnering to Invest in Children are collaborating with organizations that represent communities of color to raise awareness among policymakers of the high rates of suspensions and expulsions in preschool and the early elementary grades, especially among children of color.
  • The Children’s Institute in Oregon are helping to develop policies and strategies that help early childhood educators from diverse background attain the higher education standards that are required by the state’s new pre-k initiative.
  • The National Association for the Education of Young Children is working to support policies and practices that promote developmentally appropriate and culturally responsive early childhood education, reduce disciplinary actions that disproportionately affect children of color, and ultimately eliminate expulsions and suspensions in ECE programs. One key strategy is to support professionals with the information and resources needed to recognize and respond to individual and systemic biases.
  • Building on their 2014 publication, Being Black is Not a Risk Factor, the National Black Child Development Institute published five state reports (Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida) that highlight cutting-edge research and successful programs and policies to inform local and state efforts that promote more culturally-responsive and equitable early learning programs and practices.

The Alliance will continue to dig deeper into how future partners, grants, convenings, and technical assistance can improve advocacy and state policies related to equity and diversity.

(November 28, 2016)