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School & District Management Opinion

Every School Has Bias. Here’s What Principals Can Do About It

Principals, does your staff have the right tools to tackle bias?
By Sharif El-Mekki — February 28, 2023 4 min read
One of a few students is singled out.
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It’s 8:45 a.m. on a Tuesday. Do you know where your school’s culture is on the continuum of cultural proficiency? Is it trending toward proficiency or cultural destructiveness? Where and how might your students and their families be experiencing racial biases right now in your school?

That’s a question most any school leader should be able to answer, but precious few actually can.

The challenge of addressing racial bias—both implicit and explicit—in classrooms has long concerned education leaders, researchers, and advocates. And rightly so. Racial bias injures children, reduces their academic and social trajectory, and reinforces the most pernicious elements of systemic injustice. But it’s mighty challenging work to unearth that bias and take steps to ameliorate it.

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In this biweekly column, principals and other authorities on school leadership—including researchers, education professors, district administrators, and assistant principals—offer timely and timeless advice for their peers.

A study published last year by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and Johns Hopkins University found that bias can be found in the most subtle of school locations: the very language that teachers use in talking about their students. The study found that negative views of Black children “were part of a culture of coded racial stereotypes” that then drive disproportionality in the discipline of Black students.

This study gives further evidence of what other researchers have found: Teacher bias is a major barrier to academic and social success for Black children. Research shows that the bias students experience starts in preschool and compounds in later grades, resulting in higher rates of academic failure and incarceration for Black students.

But how do we take combating this bias from merely a cause célèbre to something that is actually built into the who, how, and why of teaching, leadership, and school organization?

Part of the challenge is fully uncovering the extent of this bias. Psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum, an expert on race relations, characterizes the disinformation of bias as an invisible “smog,” impossible to see but pervasive and injurious to all who breathe it.

Leaders must be proactive, by stating publicly that taking on bias is your personal priority and your school’s. Acknowledge that you, too, have your own bias to interrogate, that you, too, breathe the “smog,” but you are here to look at that bias honestly in partnership with staff, students, and families. Taking personal responsibility as a leader is a prerequisite to collaboratively addressing the damage of bias in schools.

Approaching the problem with openness and curiosity is also essential. Just as important is to center the inquiry on the student experience. Leadership teams should strive to understand how families experience the school community, their leadership, and the practice of educators. They must also take stock of which classrooms make students feel the most challenged and supported and which make students feel the most put down.

Leaders can and should model this inquiry-based approach, demonstrating to their staff and leadership teams that “we’re all learners.” An ethic of care is essential for anyone to succeed as an educator. Begin with self-examination and reflecting on how others experience your leadership, your teaching, your partnership, your colleagueship are all steps in the right direction.

To take action on this work, leaders must leverage the tools of the system to uncover, understand, and unwind bias. At my previous school, we found that well-facilitated professional learning communities could be fruitful venues for analyzing how race, class, power, and privilege play out in our school’s data. PLCs are well situated to look at inputs and outcomes to understand the system effects of bias, including in areas like disciplinary referrals, formative assessments, family engagement, and classroom management.

Once leaders and their staffs establish a shared understanding, they are better positioned to collaborate in the work of unwinding bias in practice. Seeing the challenge as a shared problem and an opportunity builds buy-in, takes the focus off individual failure, and reorients the effort toward progress over perfection. This is extraordinarily important because missteps are all but inevitable. However, the messy but sustained process to combat bias exemplifies so much of what being an educator is—and so much of what teaching and learning looks like in the real world of the classroom.

Admitting you have a problem, as always, is the first step in addressing racial bias in the classroom. It’s not enough for leaders to say and know it; they must support their educators in a journey of self-examination of the “smog” of bias around themselves and their teaching practice.

Biased mindsets are deeply embedded, so unearthing them can be a painful process. It is the responsibility and obligation of a good school leader to ensure educators have the tools and support they need.

It’s time to get to it.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2023 edition of Education Week as What Principals Can Do About School Bias

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