Equity & Diversity Opinion

What Feeds Bias in the Education World?

By Nancy Flanagan — April 20, 2018 4 min read
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One of the most genuinely enlightening experiences of my professional career was the multi-day bias training offered (at that time) by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, required of teachers who were training to score portfolio entries of candidates seeking National Board Certification. The first thing we learned was that bias was inevitable in human judgment—and could be positive as well as negative.

That’s important to remember. Bias is often reflexively construed as harmful. Prejudice, a synonym for bias, is not a word we associate with healthy human interaction. All people, however, bring a basket of predispositions into every aspect of work and life, and it’s hard to extinguish those, even when we’re paying attention. Still, some of those characteristics can be constructive.

The trick is recognizing your own biases, as they emerge, and figuring out where those inherent preferences, dislikes and false beliefs are leading your responses. Not easy to do. But important. As Patricia Devine, a psychology professor and director of the Prejudice Lab at the University of Wisconsin in Madison says:

There are a lot of people who are very sincere in their renunciation of prejudice. Yet they are vulnerable to habits of mind. Intentions aren't good enough."

Worth repeating: Intentions aren’t good enough.

It strikes me that much of what we see in mainstream media about schools, teaching and student achievement is fed by widely held biases. Things like:

Public schools aren’t as good as private schools (because you get what you pay for). Teachers in high-poverty schools aren’t as skilled as teachers in the well-heeled suburbs. Getting into a selective college should be every HS graduate’s goal. Most teachers come from the bottom of the academic barrel, and would have chosen another occupation, if they could.

I could go on, pretty much ad nauseum. If an education journalist attended a pricey private high school and university, growing up with financial security and a well-fed ego, nurtured in school, it would be natural to carry those biases into reporting on education, making assumptions about the people and institutions who are most responsible for educating the nation’s children. Assumptions based on nothing more than ground-in thinking, and lack of personal time spent in schools where everyone’s on free and reduced lunch and the textbooks are 25 years old.

And yes—I realize that my own biases about why mainstream reporting on schools and teachers is so often inaccurate are glaringly obvious here.

The situation is worse in state legislatures, where “information” about “policies that work” is sponsored by deep-pockets funders with even deeper biases about the children who most need high-quality instruction, curriculum and resources in the classroom.

And now we have a widely recognized franchise—Starbucks—requiring all their outlets and employees to take a day off for bias training. Will this have a positive effect?Or is this another case of intentions not being good enough—or even, possibly, making things worse?

And we haven’t even started to talk about racial bias.

Is school the place to start chipping away about biases? Could we—and by “we,” I mean our racist American society—make a dent, a difference, a change in embedded biases by deliberating structuring anti-bias activities and mandating them in public education?

I’m not naïve enough to think that schools could turn hearts and minds in a K-12 generation. But could they do significant good, given the right tools and incentives?

Research doesn’t give us a lot of hope around this question. A study found that pre-school teachers expect bad behavior from black children, especially black boys—and the data indicate that black children are 3.6 times more likely than white children to be suspended. The bias begins in pre-school and plays itself out, endlessly and increasingly as children get older, a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s hard to see just how bias training could turn this around. But maybe it’s worth a shot.

The most surprising part of the study:

Teachers [were given] a one-paragraph vignette to read, describing a child disrupting a class; there's hitting, scratching, even toy-throwing. The child in the vignette was randomly assigned what researchers considered a stereotypical name (DeShawn, Latoya, Jake, Emily), and subjects were asked to rate the severity of the behavior on a scale of one to five. White teachers consistently held black students to a lower standard, rating their behavior as less severe than the same behavior of white students. Black teachers, on the other hand, did the opposite, holding black students to a higher standard and rating their behavior as consistently more severe than that of white students.

In the bias training for National Board Certified Teachers, there was a vignette describing an first grade classroom with straight rows and silent, head-down children receiving explicit direct instruction from the teacher: Put your finger on the X. Circle the X. Put your pencil down. All the children receiving direction are black—and the teacher is white.

Invariably, when asked about the quality of the pedagogical strategies, white teachers in the training responded negatively to the rigid, low-level instruction:

Those poor kids! There’s no warmth or creativity! It’s clear that the teacher has low expectations for these kids.

When the training was held in Prince George’s County, Maryland, however, most of the teachers in the room were black--perhaps 80%. When they read the vignette, they thought the teacher must be doing something right, because all the children were quietly focused. When probed--Isn’t the teaching insultingly simple? --they agreed that yes, this lesson left little room for individual thinking or joy.

They were clear, however, that all children need to be taught to behave respectfully in a classroom, to follow conventions—for their own benefit and safety. They’re black children in a public school where their next teacher may give up on making demands on them all too quickly, teachers said. Plenty of time for creativity and laughing, down the line, but these children don’t seem threatened, simply willing to follow the teacher’s guidance. If you genuinely care about children, you’ll insist that they behave properly.

It was probably the most important thing I learned in bias training—good teachers don’t all see things the same way. What seems obvious to one teacher isn’t clear at all to another, equally committed and skilled, but working with a different set of biases—positive, this time.

Would it benefit our teacher workforce to regularly examine their own assumptions through formal training?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.