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HHS Ponders Eliminating Preschool Expulsion Data in National Survey

The federal Health and Human Services Department has proposed getting rid of a question in the National Child Health Survey that collects information on preschool children who have been suspended or expelled.

The change comes only a year after the question was introduced, and before the results of the current 2016 study have been released. In its justification, HHS said the question had been requested originally by the Agency for Children and Families, but "sponsorship of this item is no longer anticipated, nor does this item address an identified analytic need."

Nearly 150 national, state, and local research and advocacy groups have signed onto a letter sent Thursday by the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, urging the Office of Management and Budget to keep the question. "Without access to valid and reliable data, parents, advocates, educators, service providers, researchers, policymakers and the public will not have the information they need to ensure early childhood settings are developmentally appropriate and nondiscriminatory," the letter argues,

"It is confusing and deeply concerning the rationale they have given" to remove the question, said Liz King, the Leadership Conference's director of education policy, later adding that it could set a bad precedent around data availability more generally. "A lot of the rationale around the reauthorization of [the Every Student Succeeds Act] was about the availability of data, about reporting, about providing information as the first step to changing systems so that they work for children. How does ESSA work if data is under attack?"

The National Child Health Survey is administered by the Census Bureau and run by HHS' Maternal and Child Health Bureau. Each year it surveys about 23,000 families on information about children's well-being, including health care, family, school and after-school experiences. It now asks parents whether in the last 12 months they had been asked "to keep your child home from any child care or preschool because of their behavior (things like hitting, kicking, biting, tantrums, or disobeying)?" The question provides information on the discipline in any public or private preschool or daycare center for children from ages 0 to 5.

The health survey data on preschool discipline was expected earlier this year, but there's no timeline yet on when it will be released. 

Rising Public Interest in Early Discipline

preschool discipline.JPGThe U.S. Education Department's Civil Rights Data Collection also collects information on preschool suspensions and expulsions, but its data come from schools, not parents. Nonetheless, its most recent 2013-14 collection, showed significant differences in discipline by gender and race, as the chart at right shows.

"There was collective alarm when CRDC data was released showing both the frequency of pre-K suspensions and expulsions, which I think was just shocking ... but then also the massive racial disproportionality," King said, adding, "Being able to look across settings and being able to make comparisons across settings for what the experience of children is, is incredibly important for research.

"From our perspective it's important to know not just where things are going wrong ... but also where things are going well and better decisions are being made and children are receiving the supports they need, so we can replicate and learn from best practices," she said.

That data spurred efforts by educators and policymakers to change disciplinary practices for the youngest students. in fact, researcher Walter Gilliam of the Yale Child Study Center presented on the connection between implicit bias and preschool discipline at HHS's Administration for Children and Families State and Territory Administrators Meeting last September.

Comments Sought on Survey Change

It's common for surveys to alter or remove questions over time, said Grace Reef, the president of the Early Learning Policy Group, LLC, a Washington D.C.-based government relations group, but she warned that removing the preschool discipline question would be a mistake.

"The issue on this question is preschool suspension and expulsion is an important issue, and if we don't ask the question, we don't have the data," Reef said. Civil rights data aren't enough, because "you could very well find a different answer when it is a broader population, as in [the HHS survey]. Because preschool is offered in such a mixed delivery, we need to look more broadly across the board."

The change is a little difficult to find: It's available on the last page of a supplementary appendix to a Federal Register notice for the Commerce Department's Census Bureau, which administers the survey. You can find the full documentation for the survey change here. Written comments on the change must be submitted by the end of Thursday to [email protected] or the fax (202) 395-5806.


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