Law & Courts

Schools Deemed ‘Discriminatory’ Struggle to Erase Disparities

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 16, 2015 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 13 min read
Maritza Fabia, a 3rd grader at Rose Hill Elementary School in Colorado's Adams 14 school district, listens to her teacher during a Spanish class. The district is under a federal compliance agreement to correct discrimination problems.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Monaco Elementary School in Commerce City, Colo.

By 10 a.m., the teacher referrals are already starting to fill the box outside Ari Gerzon-Kessler’s office at Monaco Elementary, a low-income, high-minority school in this district at the northeast edge of Denver. The principal will bring in parents and call students from their classes, as he does several times a week.

In most schools, parents and students dread being called to the principal’s office, but at Monaco Elementary, these are all “positive referrals,” for which Gerzon-Kessler reads detailed praise from a teacher to the student, in English or Spanish, as his or her family looks on.

“This [referral] is four minutes of work for me, four minutes of work for the teacher, but it’s such a positive empowering experience for the teachers and students and families,” Gerzon-Kessler said.

Monaco Elementary School’s positive referrals are one small volley in the much larger battle to overcome years of low achievement and crippling discrimination that have plagued the local school system.

Gerzon-Kessler and much of his staff came to the school after local and federal investigations from 2008 to 2012 exposed widespread discrimination against the Spanish-speaking community at Monaco and throughout its parent system, the Adams County 14 school district.

As a result of those probes, Colorado’s Adams 14 joined the ranks of some 1,400 districts across the country that are under compliance agreements with the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights to correct systemic discrimination based on race, sex, disability, or other characteristics. And, like many of those districts, Adams 14 has rewritten and redistributed its anti-discrimination policy and started diversity training for teachers and other staff members.

Monaco Elementary School Principal Ari Gerzon-Kessler calls the grandfather of 2nd grade student Klyde Ramirez, 7, left, after he was awarded a positive referral for excelling in the classroom.

In all those districts—and in thousands of others with achievement gaps and discipline disparities that never garner federal oversight—those working to overcome biases have a steep uphill battle, and many will fail.

Even so, through emerging cognitive research and in-depth school observations, educators and experts are starting to understand more about how unconscious biases undermine efforts to combat discrimination. And as districts like Adams 14 rebuild their school communities, they’re also starting to understand how to prevent bias from hurting the children they serve.

‘Broken Culture’

If the federal investigation is any indication, bias was pervasive in the Adams 14 system. In a district where more than 80 percent of the more than 7,500 students are Latino, and 60 percent are English-language learners, bilingual teachers and those who spoke accented English were pushed out. Teachers were told not to speak Spanish to students or parents.

In the high school, federal investigators found a teacher “almost caused a riot” after repeatedly removing Hispanic students from the classroom and telling them to “go back to Mexico.” In several elementary schools, Spanish-speaking students were forced to throw out bilingual reading books. When one kindergartner fell and hit his head on the playground, he asked for help in Spanish, and the teacher on duty told him he could do so only in English. He went without medical care for hours before being taken to the hospital for stitches.

“Our school culture got broken, and we’re still recovering from the traumas of the previous years,” Gerzon-Kessler said.

The atmosphere was so toxic that in 2012, when Patrick Sánchez, the current superintendent of Adams 14, arrived, he spent his first six months in what he said amounted to “districtwide therapy sessions,” digging through what had happened, who had been hurt, and how to rebuild.

Educators here and nationwide are learning to counter bias, they must reconsider how they think about it.

Discussions of bias in education often focus on explicit discrimination—or, as bias researcher John B. Diamond puts it, “bad people doing bad things intentionally.”

But ordinary, well-intentioned people who believe themselves to be committed to equality can still maintain the bias that is “embedded in the system and the daily practices of a school,” said Diamond, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“There needs to be a shift in the way we think and talk about it,” he said.

Test Yourself: A Survey Tool for Gauging Bias

How can you find a bias you don’t consciously know you have? And can such a bias really affect your behavior?

The Implicit Association Test, developed more than a decade ago by University of Washington social psychologist Anthony Greenwald, uses a person’s reaction times to measure how closely two concepts are linked in the person’s mind. A participant quickly matches pairs of pictures or words—for example, the words “scientist” and “nurse” with male and female names, or “high-achieving” with black and white faces. Over thousands of trials, teams of researchers have found people take longer to match items that run counter to their own mental bias.

A recent meta-analysis of more than 100 studies found the Implicit Association Test can predict interracial discriminatory behavior better than personal reports of conscious racist beliefs.

Interested in finding out how you would score on an Implicit Association Test? Try this short online test adapted for Education Week readers by Jordan Axt, a postgraduate researcher at the University of Virginia’s Implicit Social Cognition Laboratory. If you agree to participate, your confidential answers will also serve as data for Project Implicit, an ongoing, international research project aimed at gauging levels of racial bias.

An enormous increase in student data—from tests, disciplinary records, school climate surveys, and the like—has increased debates about the role of bias in such problems as gender gaps in science fields and higher suspension rates for children of color.

But “documenting the disparities and being aware of a problem in general doesn’t mean you can solve it,” said Calvin K. Lai, a Harvard University psychologist who studies ways to counter bias. In a 2014 evaluation of 17 different anti-bias interventions, Lai and his colleagues found that none reduced explicit racial biases like the ones seen in Adams 14, and fewer than half reduced unconscious, so-called “implicit” biases.

At the K-12 level, Lai said, many diversity-training programs are “powered by good intentions, but ... not a lot of empirical evidence.”

“There’s this sense that people can be colorblind, gender-blind, and that’s just not how the mind works,” Lai said. “Implicit bias is effortless and very fast.”

People create mental shortcuts, based on their experiences and what they hear from others. The stronger the bias, the more time it takes for someone to mentally separate an individual from stereotypes connected to the person’s race, gender, or other characteristics.

For example, a series of studies by University of California, Los Angeles, psychologist Phillip A. Goff found adults of different races shown photos of young boys routinely thought the black children were several years older and less childlike, and that they should be held more responsible for their actions than white boys of the same age.

Moment of Discrimination

Goff calls these split-second biases “fast traps,” and research shows that the less time a person has to make a decision, the more likely that bias will influence his or her choice.

In one five-year study of a wealthy but diverse suburban district, researchers found school staff members were most likely to act on an implicit bias when they had to make a quick, subjective decision about how to apply school rules and to whom. That was true both for positive choices, such as whom a teacher called on in class, and negative ones, such as which of several misbehaving children to chastise, found Diamond and Amanda E. Lewis, an associate professor in African-American studies and sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“Race and gender influence whether a student’s action is seen as silly or transgressive, a minor annoyance or in need of intervention,” Lewis and Diamond write in Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequity Thrives in Good Schools, to be published in October by the Oxford University Press.

Complete Series: Beyond Bias


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

The bigger the gap between the background and the personality of an adult and that of the student, the more likely the adult will subconsciously view the student as representing a group, rather than as an individual.

Highly educated white professionals are less likely to voice anti-black attitudes, but more likely to show implicit racism, studies have found.

In separate research, Jennifer L. Eberhardt, a Stanford University social psychologist and the winner of a 2014 MacArthur “genius grant” for her research, found that black students are more likely than white students to be punished for “defiance” or “insubordination.” Teachers who reviewed fictional student discipline reports of minor insubordination and class disturbance were more likely to recommend severe punishments, including suspension, for students with names like Deshawn or Darnell—names often associated with African-Americans—than identical profiles with whiter-sounding names like Greg and Jake.

Lewis, who also serves as a teacher coach for equity training, said teachers often aren’t aware of racial and sex differences in the students they view as causing trouble, but they subconsciously note those differences when making disciplinary decisions.

“If I’m observing your classroom, I’m seeing a bunch of things going on that may objectively be rule-breaking, but they don’t seem to bother you, so it’s not seen as disruptive,” Lewis said. “So why did you call out these [black students] who did the same thing?”

Teachers who feel stressed or overwhelmed themselves are also more likely to nitpick students in racially or gender-stereotyped ways. This sort of confrontation between teacher and student can backfire, disengaging both the student being disciplined and the rest of the class.

Nathaniel Williams, a postdoctoral researcher at Indiana University-Indianapolis, said the tensest moment in any of his classroom observations as a researcher came when a young black student in a secondary school classroom called out the answer to a question without first raising his hand.

“The teacher immediately yelled, ‘Get out!’ The young man had to leave the room even though he was on task and answering the question. And what about the children still left in that room? There was an uneasy tension” for the rest of the class period, Williams said during a symposium at the American Educational Research Association conference last spring.

Myth vs. Reality

When ‘Helping’ Hurts

In Adams 14, bilingual 3rd grade teacher Darlene A. Lopez said she grew up in the district. As a student, she recalled it as a warm, enthusiastic working-class system proud of its melting pot of white, black, Latino, and Asian students. But as an adult paraprofessional and later a teacher, she faced discrimination for speaking English with an accent during what she called the “years of abuse.” Now she tries to work with new teachers to counter biased perceptions of students in Monaco Elementary.

“I still sometimes hear [from a teacher], ‘Oh, that parent can’t afford that car,’ or ‘That kid’s going to jail,’ ” she said. “I always say, how can you say he’s going to jail? How can you make a prediction about a kid in elementary school? You save up to travel, and that family values that car and saved up to get it,” Lopez added. “When you get to know people on a personal basis, you start breaking down those stereotypes.”

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Lopez calls these “courageous conversations,” and engaging in them can be like treading a minefield. That’s because another clear way to kick an unconscious bias into active prejudice is to have someone from a disadvantaged group challenge the safety or moral legitimacy of someone in power. Think of a driver arguing against the officer who pulled him over or a teenager talking back to a teacher.

Those in helping professions, like teachers and counselors, also can be particularly susceptible to what is called “benevolent prejudice"—holding lower standards or wanting to provide inappropriate help to certain groups. In one study, Katie Wang, a Yale University postdoctoral social psychologist, asked blind and sighted people to identify prejudice in scenarios in which a blind person asked a sighted person for directions. Both groups flagged when the sighted person acted hostilely to the blind person. But only blind participants flagged it as discriminatory when, “instead of telling her where the bus stop is, the person grabs her arm and tries to bring her across the street,” Wang said.

Moreover, sighted people were more likely to consider the blind person to be rude or ungrateful if she rejected the patronizing help.

“In some ways, patronizing help can be even more difficult [for disadvantaged students] to manage because there is so much ambiguity surrounding it,” Wang said. “As they are growing up, the person is internalizing this message that if someone is trying to help you, you shouldn’t confront them,” she said. But in the long term, patronized people are less likely to become independent or self-confident in dealing with those of the patronizing group.

Breaking a Pattern

Biases can fester because teachers and administrators often see each situation individually, and don’t recognize patterns in their own and others’ behavior, said Catherine Lhamon, the assistant secretary for the Education Department’s civil rights office.

“Most educators are in school because they want to help kids,” Lhamon said. “They aren’t thinking, ‘Am I engaging in bias?’ They’re thinking, ‘That kid is poking another kid with a pencil, and I want that to stop.’ ”

So how can schools counter implicit biases when so many everyday things in the education system can trigger or exacerbate them?

Experiencing individuals who run counter to a stereotype can weaken a bias; studies have found that students who read about great African-American scientists or political leaders who overcame discrimination to succeed were quicker to associate black faces and intelligence in a test for implicit bias, for example.

In Adams 14, Superintendent Sánchez has taken advantage of that tendency, bringing in Latino speakers such as the actor Edward James Olmos and University of California, Los Angeles education professor Pedro Noguera, who then directed New York University’s Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, to speak to students and the community as successful members of their professions.

Sherry Segura, the principal at Rose Hill Elementary in Adams 14, another school identified in the civil rights investigation, has been trying to help her mostly English-native teachers develop more empathy for English-learner students—who account for 60 percent of the school’s enrollment—by stepping into their shoes. In addition to ongoing diversity training and discussion groups, English-native teachers have time each week to study Spanish, including taking some “intimidating” reading tests in the language teachers did not yet know.

“You can read about what it’s like [to be an ELL student], but it’s important to have the opportunity to experience it,” Segura said.

Walking a mile in an English-learner’s shoes can help make teachers less likely to see their ELL students as less intelligent or engaged than their non-ELL peers.

Diamond and New York University’s Noguera said that educators should find ways to change the environment in which adults make decisions, and regularly review their own and their students’ behavior, rather than just talking about who has a given bias.

“A lot of the time we start with beliefs, and it’s very hard to change beliefs,” Noguera said. “Behavior is observable—you can go into the classroom and see that it is changing—so that’s a more fruitful and productive way to approach [bias reduction].”

At Monaco Elementary, for example, teachers and the principal rewrote the discipline rubric to prevent students from being sent out of the classroom for minor offenses, like chewing gum or talking back. Teachers also collaborate to find underlying causes for chronic misbehavior.

Adams 14 is also analyzing its policies and practices for bias using a group that includes teachers, paraprofessionals, janitorial workers, secretaries, and others who might notice the day-to-day patterns of the schools.

Adams 14’s equity efforts were bolstered in 2013, when the district made its largest single-year gains in state test scores since 2007. And, “the schools that had the best climate and culture also had the best academics,” Sánchez, the superintendent, said.

Sánchez said he has hope, but knows the district has far to go.

“It’s not for the meek,” he said of the ongoing efforts to counter bias. “If you tinker, it turns to chaos. You come up with a great statement that diversity is a beautiful thing ... that goes over the central office in a placard, and the data doesn’t change.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2015 edition of Education Week as Under Pressure, Colo. Schools Forge New Path


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