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Published in Print: October 28, 2015, as Fighting Subtle Bias

Classroom Biases Hinder Students' Learning

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"Are you sure you belong here?"

There is perhaps no more critical question for a disadvantaged student entering an advanced class, none more likely to rattle in the back of even the most gifted student's brain.

And when coming from a teacher or student, it's also just one example of a "microaggression," an incident of everyday discrimination that students encounter that may contribute to lower performance and disengagement. But educators and researchers are fighting back, with efforts to both curb microaggressions and buffer students against them and help them cope.

Gabrielle "Ellie" Bennett moved to the mostly white St. Louis suburb of Rockwood, Mo., in 2nd grade, after being in a gifted program in Buffalo, N.Y. When her mother, Debby Bennett, who is white, asked to enroll her biracial daughter in the gifted program, Ellie's teacher waffled. "She asked if I was in gifted [education] in a predominantly black school before," Ellie said. "She assumed I couldn't read and wouldn't know the difference between a triangle and a square. She assumed I wasn't up to her standard."

Ellie persisted, getting separately tested to prove her IQ, but said she knows other bright students who disengage. "You deal with these assumptions and racism even when you are 7," she said. "If people already have expectations of you from when you are a little kid—and kids are aware of what teachers expect—by the time you get through all those years of school with those assumptions piling up, it's like, what's the point of taking an honors class?"

While Ellie, now a junior at Eureka High School, takes several Advanced Placement courses, she said she still "is a little jaded when it comes to new teachers. Whenever there is a substitute, even if other kids are talking, I'm always not talking and doing my work because I don't want to feed into any misconceptions about me."

Tracking 'Microaggressions'

Classroom interactions that teachers intend to be inclusive can instead make students feel vulnerable if they are singled out based on race, disability, or income level.


For example, in a 2010 study, Georgia Southern University researcher Mary Anne Meeks tracked microaggressions experienced by 342 students in a large, diverse high school over four years. Students reported they had experienced a majority of 21 types of microaggressions at least once during their high school careers, such as teachers assuming a black student was poor without asking, or acting surprised or giving outsize praise for being articulate.

Students of color were called on to speak on behalf of their race during class discussions, while white students were the least likely to fill that role. Hispanic and Asian students said they were asked to teach words in their "native" language, even if they spoke only English.

Interactions like these have been shown in hundreds of studies to trigger what's known as stereotype threat, the fear that one's actions could confirm a negative stereotype held about his or her group. Ironically, top-performing students can be particularly vulnerable to performing worse under stereotype threat.

Learning Under Threat

Under normal, nonthreatening circumstances, a student learning to solve a linear equation gets a little jolt of dopamine, a "good feeling" chemical, when he or she answers a problem correctly. It helps the new method stick in the brain. Learners generally "forget" wrong answers quickly.

Complete Series: Beyond Bias

This yearlong series will examine efforts to recognize and overcome discrimination in schools. View the complete series.

Stereotype threat can make that system misfire, studies have found. Say that same student is a girl in a mostly male calculus class, and her teacher seems surprised when she answers a difficult question correctly. The student fears that the teacher or other students believe women are not good at math, and any mistake she makes will confirm that stereotype. This fear takes up mental energy—making it harder to think on the spot—and emotionally charges her reaction to errors, making her remember the wrong answer as strongly as she would the right answer, found a 2014 study. Students under stereotype threat can end up brooding, not reflecting, on mistakes.

In a school with academic tracking, taking honors classes can come to seem risky for low-income and minority students, particularly those who already have top grades in standard classes, said Alycia Sato, a counselor at Laguna Creek High School in Elk Grove, Calif. "It's the fear factor," Sato said. "They are scared of the B."

Tracy Oliver-Gary, a 10-year veteran Advanced Placement teacher and current content specialist in the Montgomery County, Md., district, said her approach to teaching AP changed after a conversation with one Black History class about why AP classes were disproportionately white.

"They began to talk about, 'Oh, I was in another AP class and I dropped it. I was the only black student and I felt dumb,' " Oliver-Gary said. "Those conversations shocked me; I started to really think about ... the role of the class environment, what does it feel like to know you belong and are not isolated?"

Educators in the nearly 1,700-student Laguna Creek High found they needed to boost social and emotional, not just academic, supports for students when the school changed its entry requirements for honors and International Baccalaureate classes to bring in more students from minority and low-income backgrounds. The school is highly diverse; nearly half of its students are low-income, and white, black, and Hispanic students each make up 22 percent to 23 percent of the population, with the rest composed of Asian, Pacific Islander, Filipino, and multiracial students.

"You can't just run these programs," said Doug Craig, the principal. "These are teens; they don't know how to cope with stress yet. And kids from [disadvantaged backgrounds] need to be told over and over that they can do it."

The school now provides a four-year support course for students entering honors or IB courses, according to Sato. In addition to academic issues like time management and college planning, students learn to recognize signs of stress, speak out in class, and advocate for themselves with teachers, she said.

The school is trying to help students see themselves as successful learners, a strategy that studies suggest can help counter stereotype threat, particularly for low-income students.

Focus on Empowerment

At Northwestern University, first-generation college students became more likely to ask for help and more comfortable discussing academic challenges with a professor after completing a five-minute writing assignment about who they would be after college and how people would think of them. By contrast, students who wrote about who they were and how they were perceived before attending college became more anxious and less comfortable asking a professor for help.

"The lower your income, the more anxious you felt even going to a professor," said Vida Manzo, the lead researcher and a social psychology doctoral student at Northwestern University, who discussed the study of first-generation students. "For low-[socioeconomic-status] students thinking about their future identity, they performed better and were more confident in a high-pressure social situation" after writing about their visions for themselves.

To counter the effects of racial or gender microaggressions, schools can focus on building the social support for students coming into an advanced class. "Since African-Americans don't see a lot of black faces in advanced classes, they may have internal feelings of inadequacy," said Eliza Brooks, a senior and one of three black girls working toward the two-year IB diploma at Laguna Creek. "That's why I love the Black Student Union, because I can use my position as a black girl in advanced classes dominated by white and Asian students as a way to empower other minority students."

In a series of studies led by Gregory Walton of Stanford University, students from different stereotyped groups—black college students and women in engineering classes, among others—went through a "social belonging" intervention that identified common feelings of frustration and isolation among new students. "The worry that 'people like me' might not belong in a school setting sensitizes students" and leads them to interpret interactions through that lens, Walton concluded. Students who participated in the intervention, by contrast, were more likely to "see adversity as normal for all students as they enter a new school and as lessening with time."

For black college students, a half-hour social-belonging intervention in freshman year was associated with halving the gap in GPAs between black and white students over three years. An intervention adapted for science majors all but eliminated gaps between men's and women's GPAs in the male-dominated engineering major.

At Eureka High, Ellie Bennett helps lead East Square, an equity club that partners with teachers to address bias issues on campus.

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Problems can be subtle: One teacher, after hearing about a fight at lunch, incorrectly assumed aloud it had been triggered by a group of mostly black teenagers who often stood together in the cafeteria.

"Teachers often don't understand that saying stuff like that is racist, because it is coming from a place of implicit bias," Ellie said. "Teachers often don't know what microaggressions are ... and they don't know that when they are committing them, they are making problems worse."

Vol. 35, Issue 10, Pages 1,13-15

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