When Brain Betrays Heart

Originally published in the Greater Park Hill News on Sept 2nd, 2019.

How Our Education System Fuels Implicit Bias

Very few people openly identify as sexist, racist, or homophobic. In fact, many will loudly proclaim their support for marginalized groups while simultaneously engaging in deeds that betray what they claim to be their core beliefs.

Consider a male boss who truly believes he supports women’s equality, yet continually interrupts his female colleagues, or repeatedly hires men over equally qualified women. While some people may intentionally say one thing and do another, others may be blissfully unaware of the incongruence between their actions and their words. These unacknowledged beliefs are referred to as implicit bias.

According to Vernā Myers, inclusion specialist and author, “biases are the stories we make up about people before we actually know who they are.”

Bias and education equity

We all harbor biases about groups of other people, especially those that are different from our own. Often these beliefs are unconscious, and surface only when we’re assessing another human being or reacting to a potential threat. We’ve all done it: a driver cuts you off, and as you pass them to give a deserving glare, you think to yourself, “well of course you’re a terrible driver.”

The voice in your own head catches you off guard. While you promise yourself you aren’t racist/ageist/sexist, your initial reaction certainly felt that way. It can be incredibly uncomfortable to realize that your brain can betray your heart – that you sometimes think things that you didn’t know you felt.

Which leads us to the question: how does implicit bias affect equity in education?

While all people can be affected by prejudice, the power structures of our education system cause implicit bias to negatively impact our black and brown students the most.

Children of color are overrepresented in out-of-school suspensions, over-identified in special education, and underrepresented in gifted programs. They are less likely to be placed in honors classes, and less likely to be expected to graduate. Implicit bias from teachers and administrators regarding black and brown children’s abilities fuels these divides.

Studies reveal startling realities

In Denver Public Schools, 73 percent of the teacher workforce is white, while 77 percent of the pupils they teach identify as non-white. Inevitably, cultural and racial divides often exist between teachers and the students they teach.

Data collected in 2016 by Seth Gershenson, a PhD at American University, indicates that when black and white teachers evaluate the same black student, white teachers are 12 percent less likely to predict the student will finish high school, and 30 percent are less likely to predict the student will graduate from college.

In a separate study, Sean Nicholson-Crotty, a PhD at Indiana University, found that if black students had a white teacher, they were 54 percent less likely than white students to be recommended for gifted-education programs (after adjusting for factors such as students’ standardized test scores). However, if the black student had a black teacher, they were three times more likely to be referred for gifted programming.

Similarly, data from the U.S. Department of Education in 2016 show that black children aged 6 to 21 are 40 percent more likely than their non-black peers to be identified as having learning disabilities. They are twice as likely to be identified as having emotional disabilities.

These implicit beliefs about black students’ abilities affect students as early as preschool. Data from the US Department of Education in 2014 revealed that black children represent 19 percent of preschool enrollment, but 47 percent of the out-of-school suspensions.

‘We all lose out’

Halley Potter, a researcher at The Century Foundation, explains how implicit bias can lead to such disproportionate discipline: “If you think about a preschool student … how a preschool student bites another student and how a teacher reacts, and if you have a white teacher and that’s a white student, there might be a different pathway in that teacher’s brain, that says, ‘Oh I recognize that is developmentally appropriate behavior I’ve seen in my child or I’ve seen my niece do this, and so I know how to respond.’

“Whereas if that’s a kid of color, there might be different assumptions. There might be a thought that ‘Oh, this is the beginning of aggressive behavior that we need to manage,’ and those types of decisions happen in split seconds.”

Because the white teacher doesn’t identify with the black child, and may have implicit biases toward the intent of the behavior, it is far more likely that the black child will be disciplined, rather than understood. These disciplinary inequities continue through school, as black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students, despite similar, if not identical, infractions.

When educators allow biases toward children of color to stand in the way of seeing and encouraging student potential, we fail not just our students, but our country.

“We all lose out in multiple ways,” notes former Secretary of Education John King. ‘We lose out economically because people who are poorly educated earn less, pay less in taxes and need more services. They will also more likely end up in prison. But we lose out in other ways that are not obvious. We can’t help but think of the art that is not created, the entrepreneurial ideas that may never reach the drawing board, the classrooms these Americans will never lead, the discoveries they’ll never make.

“Our failure to educate some groups [of] children as well as others tears at the moral fabric of the nation.”

What do we do?

While the implicit bias of educators can have a profound effect on students of color, we must be careful not to blame teachers as, just like all of us, their biases are rooted in cultural misunderstandings and are often unintentional.

But educators must be encouraged to identify and challenge their biases, through diversity trainings, coaching, and support. Through Denver Public Schools’ Culture, Equity and Leadership Team, several events and trainings are provided to teachers and community members throughout the year. While that’s a start, principals must also ensure that they are creating and maintaining safe spaces that encourage uncomfortable dialogue and promote change.

The real work to change these biases starts at home. As parents, neighbors, and community members, we must begin to challenge our own prejudices, so that we can encourage courageous conversations with our children and our friends.

In an inspiring TED Talk by Verna Myers, How to Overcome our Biases? Walk Boldly Towards Them, she encourages us to get out of denial, to really face our prejudices, to ask, “Who do you trust? Who are you afraid of?” and then, go looking for disconfirming data.

She challenges people to prove that our stereotypes are wrong by expanding our social circles and making friends with our neighbors. Stop trying to be good people, and be real people instead. Become aware of the dissonance between our head and our heart, and then become comfortable with discomfort so that we can make room for change.

Erin Pier is a mother of three, Stedman parent, and school psychologist at the Academy of Urban Learning in Denver. She is an active member of PHNEE. For more information, check out the group’s Facebook page at facebook.com/phnee, or send an email to info@phnee.org.