Racial Bias Starts in Preschool, but It Isn’t Only Teachers’ Fault

The way educators interact with black and Latino students mirrors how society sees them.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Sep 30, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Like the movement protesting police use of deadly force against black Americans, the unequal application of school discipline against students of color is on the national agenda, thanks in part to President Barack Obama and Education Secretary John King.

A Yale University study released this week, however, shows that a common denominator in both issues—whites’ implicit bias—begins to affect students, particularly black boys, in the early childhood years. Education policy analysts say the research is the latest evidence confirming long-held suspicions about the roles of race in the classroom, particularly at an early age. In July, the school district that includes Charlotte, North Carolina, joined other districts across the country in reexamining suspension rates of K–2 students, mindful that the discipline tends to disproportionately fall on black boys.

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But experts also say the Yale study underscores the urgent need for dialogue and solutions, including increased teacher training and psychological support for black and Hispanic kids, to break a cycle in which perceived misbehavior becomes the real thing, feeding the school-to-prison pipeline and deadly confrontations with police.

“I call it ‘mutually assured discipline,’ ” Russell Skiba, codirector of the Culturally Responsive Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports program at Indiana University, said in an interview with TakePart.

“Students of color are very much aware that students who look like them are singled out for behavioral suspicion and infraction, very much like the way in which black men and women are followed around the store,” Skiba said. Those “microaggressions,” he says, build up and lead students to act out, resulting in trouble for both the teachers and the students.

“It really goes to the idea of trying to begin to include more training [for teachers] in implicit bias,” he said.

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Using eye-tracking technology, the Yale study found that in a typical classroom setting, preschool teachers were on the lookout for “challenging behaviors” from black boys 42 percent of the time, much more than they watched other children, including white boys and girls. The behavior occurred, the researchers concluded, even if no children were acting up.

“The tendency to base classroom observation on the gender and race of the child may explain in part why those children are more frequently identified as misbehaving and hence why there is a racial disparity in discipline,” Walter Gilliam, one of five researchers on the project, said in a written statement.

Kimberly Quick, a fellow at the Century Foundation, said the study results should also be part of the ongoing, if halting, conversation on race in America—particularly amid the ongoing spasm of black men dying at the hands of law enforcement.

“Training is one way to try to fix this,” Quick, who specializes in school integration issues, wrote in an email. “But we also need to continue having a national conversation about the root of these associations of blackness with criminality and misbehavior.”

Besides monitoring how often teachers watched students, the Yale researchers gave teachers written classroom scenarios with names meant to imply the race of the hypothetical child—Latoya, Emily, DeShawn, or Jake. Besides describing challenging classroom behavior, the scenario included an outline of the child’s “turbulent” home life.

White educators tended to show more empathy for the white child but expected bad behavior from black preschoolers, according to the study. Those race-based perceptions “can have detrimental consequences over time, with low expectations, particularly for minority children, being linked to less favorable outcomes,” the researchers wrote.

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At the same time, black educators tended to have higher expectations for black children—and they typically rated the challenging behavior as more severe.

According to the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, black children make up 18 percent of the nation’s preschool enrollment but account for nearly half of children receiving more than one out-of-school suspension. It’s worse for black boys, who are kicked out of school at roughly twice the rate of their white counterparts.

Research has shown that suspending students makes it more likely they’ll do poorly or drop out of school, increasing the odds they’ll have a low-paying job or end up in the criminal justice system. A recent UCLA study showed school suspensions cost taxpayers $35 billion each year in lost tax revenue and higher costs for publicly funded services, including health care, criminal justice, and social welfare programs.

The perception that black boys act out more than other children “is a harm we see in society twice,” said Skiba. “We see the same things in our community—that African Americans are more likely to be stopped and frisked. They are more likely to be stopped for relatively minor behavior.”

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Quick wrote that the problem is “both institutional and societal” and that solutions should take students’ needs into consideration, as well as the need for teacher training. That means “wraparound services, access to child therapists and psychologists, tools to engage families—these can help make sure that teachers who feel overwhelmed by disruptive behavior have resources other than suspension at their disposal,” she wrote.

There is no denying, “teachers have some of the most challenging and important jobs in our society,” but they also mirror it, Quick wrote. “But like society at large, they too need the space to reflect on their own baggage and racial blind spots, and determine how those impact their choices and actions.”