Curmudgucation: Addressing Bias

It may be one of the biggest unaddressed issues in education.

Here comes yet another study that makes another variation on a point we're seeing over and over again-- white teachers have lower expectations of black students, and that has consequences for those students. Add that to the stack with studies like the ones showing that white teachers are less likely to identify black students as gifted.

This particular study appears in Education Next, the Fordham publication, so there's a natural inclination to view it with jaundiced eye, to look for the angle that benefits reformsters. But it's always important for public education advocates to remember that while many reform solutions are fake, many of the problems they address are real. Those include a widespread systemic problem with racism. I don't doubt the accuracy of the findings here.

If you are a teacher of my generation, you know about expectations. It was drilled into us that expectations were super-important, that what our students would do would depend a great deal on what we believed they could do. That belief in expectations has swung into some silly territory (the Duncan administration's belief that the power of expectations would basically erase learning disabilities), but the fundamental principle remains sound-- what we expect has a lot to do with what we get.

Tie the power of expectations to the power of implicit bias, and you have a problem-- particularly in a system in which the ratio of white teachers to non-white students is so completely out of whack.

So we could try to pick apart this study, look at correlation vs. causation, talk about just how big (or not big) an effect is presented here. But I'm not going to. First, I know I have the standard white reflex to being called racist-- my impulse for denial is up and running before my impulse to self-examine can even put its shoes on. Second, regardless of what the research does or doesn't say, I know there's an issue. Hell, most everybody knows there's an issue. So can we talk about what to do?

There have been numerous attempts to address the super-whiteness of the teacher work force, including attempts to open up alternative paths. Teach for America, in one of its rebranding redefining of its mission, decided it would work at getting non-white teachers in the classroom. But much of the research suggests that the problem is not so much recruiting as retention. And that brings us back to the uncomfortable notion that teachers of color do not end up feeling that the school is not a place that welcomes or supports or fits them. So maybe we need to shift the conversation from recruiting teachers of color to supporting and welcoming them.

And since the super-white nature of the teacher pool is not going to dramatically reverse any time in the immediate future, maybe we need to put an addendum on the discussion of teacher expectations, so that it's not just "Your expectations affect your student's achievement" but also "You probably have some implicit biases that have an effect on your expectations for your students-- particularly students of color."

This should be part of every teacher's training. Every. Teacher.

At a minimum, we need to build mindfulness into the system. One of my greatest privileges as a white guy is that I don't have to think about race unless I choose to (or unless something like a protest pushes it into my face). But I should. It should be on my mind every time I'm in front of students. It's not that difficult-- as a teacher, I'm on alert for several different classroom factors all the time, while I'm doing my job. I should also be alert to my own biases, especially the ones that I'm not always conscious of. And every one of my new colleagues should be getting that kind of training, just as they get classroom management training and test-scoring training and, God help us, aligning instruction to the damn standards training.

We can do better. And we should. 

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation.