Race relations in school is not a new problem. From resources to disciplinary records, minority students often get the short end of the educational stick. Now a new study shows that implicit bias can affect your student as early as preschool.
A preschool teacher’s job is not easy. With growing class sizes and limited budgets, their resources are stretched thin to identify and respond to challenges in the classroom. But parents rightfully expect that such challenges will be met in an evenhanded way. Not so, one study suggests.
Walter Gilliam, from the Yale Child Study Center, recently published a study showing that preschool teachers are looking for trouble in all the wrong places. Their implicit biases dictate where they will see problem behavior, and how severe they believe a particular behavior is.
Gilliam’s study recruited 135 educators to watch short videos. Educators were told:
“We are interested in learning about how teachers detect challenging behavior in the classroom. Sometimes this involves seeing behavior before it becomes problematic. The video segments you are about to view are of preschoolers engaging in various activities. Some clips may or may not contain challenging behaviors. Your job is to press the enter key on the external keypad every time you see a behavior that could become a potential challenge.”
But there were no challenges. Instead, the video featured four children – a black boy, a white boy, a black girl, and a white girl. The study used eye-scan technology to measure where the teachers were looking to spot the non-existent problem behavior.
“What we found was exactly what we expected based on the rates at which children are expelled from preschool programs,” 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 eye-tracking was confirmed when teachers were asked which child they felt required the most attention. 42% singled out the black boy as a potential problem. (34% said the white boy, 13% the white girl, and 10% the black girl.)
This correlates with recent information from the U.S. Department of Education, which shows black preschool students are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended than their white classmates. While about 19% of preschoolers are black, they account for nearly half of preschoolers who are suspended. Gilliam’s study suggests that this disparity might come from where teachers spend their time.
Next, Gilliam asked teachers to read a one-paragraph vignette describing a disruptive child who hit, scratched, and threw toys. The child was randomly assigned a stereotypical name (DeShawn, Latoya, Jake, or Emily). The teachers were then asked to rank the severity of the child’s behavior.
White teachers consistently held black students to a lower standard. They said the same behavior was less severe when performed by students with “black names” than with “white names.” For black teachers, it was the reverse.
When some of the teachers were provided background information into the child’s disruptive home life, the response depended on the race of the child and teacher involved. White teachers were empathetic to white students in difficult situations, and black teachers did the same for black students. But in cross-racial situations, severity rates skyrocketed. Gilliam says “the teachers ended up feeling that the behavioral problems were hopeless and that very little could be done to actually improve the situation.”
Every student has the right under federal law to be free from discrimination in school. But Gilliam’s study shows that implicit bias can play a role in a student’s disciplinary hearing as early as preschool. Where these biases go un-checked, early disciplinary action can put a preschooler on a path to a troubled education, and even dropping out.
Lisa J. Schmidt is a students’ rights attorney at Schmidt Law Services, PLLC, in Ferndale, Michigan. She helps students facing disciplinary hearings and juvenile proceedings. If your child is facing punishment at school, contact Schmidt Law Services today for a free consultation.