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How Racial Bias Is Showing Up in Schools

September 28, 2016, 3:46 PM UTC

God bless Jamal, that’s got his own. Because he’s on his own.

New research from the Yale Child Study Center confirms our own worst expectations: Preschool teachers are more likely to expect and identify disruptive behavior from black kids, specifically boys, than white ones.

The research has two parts. Part one had teachers watch videos of kids in a classroom setting, and asked them to identify potential challenging behaviors before they happened. “What we found was exactly what we expected based on the rates at which children are expelled from preschool programs,” lead researcher Walter Gilliam told NPR. “Teachers looked more at the black children than the white children, and they looked specifically more at the African-American boy.”

The second part of the study had teachers reading a short passage about a student who was being disruptive in class – like scratching others or throwing toys – then asked them to rate the severity of the behavior. Again, bias came into play but in surprising ways. White teachers, with lower expectations of black children, rated the severity of the behavior lower. Black teachers, who held black students to a higher standard, consistently rated their behavior as more severe.

Finally, some teachers were given information about a disruptive child’s home life, to see if it would make them more empathetic. Here comes another surprise – the teachers were more empathetic only if they were the same race as the student. If not, severity reports skyrocketed, confirming earlier research that we tend to be more empathetic to people who look like us.

This is the first research that confirms implicit bias in teachers at the pre-school level. Black children are 3.6 times more likely to receive a suspension in preschool than their white classmates, according to 2013-2014 data from the Department of Education. Put another way, black children accounted for 18 percent of preschool enrollment but almost half (48 percent) of the kids suspended more than once.

Because they lose so much valuable school time at such a tender age – not to mention the lasting pain of being branded as a problem child –early suspensions feed the school-to-prison pipeline. These kids become disengaged and are more likely to drop out and drift toward the criminal justice system according to clear research from the Center for American Progress.

The final surprise: The teachers who participated didn’t know the true purpose of the research until it was completed. They’ve dedicated their lives to helping children, so I imagine the outcome must have come as a shock. But they did us all a solid by letting their results stand. (Only one withdrew.) In they end, they taught us the most valuable lesson of all: That we all have implicit biases that need to be managed, if only we take the time to see them. And that’s a song we can all learn to sing.


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