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Teachers' racial bias starts as early as preschool, study suggests

Preschoolers at a table
Seattle Parks / Flickr CC / HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

Research shows black students receive harsher discipline than their white counterparts. They are more likely to be suspended and expelled from school, putting them at higher risk of falling into the school-to-prison pipeline.

And it's a trend that starts as early as preschool.

Black preschoolers are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended as white preschool children, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Black children made up 19% of preschool students in 2013-2014, but 47% of those who received one or more out-of-school suspensions.

So why is there such a disproportionate suspension and expulsion rate for black preschoolers?

A new study from Yale researchers suggests teachers' implicit biases may be a key contributing factor. Teachers may be more likely to expect young black children to misbehave, particularly young black boys.

For the study, researchers set up two experiments at an annual conference for pre-K teachers. The teachers were not told the purpose of the research.

In one experiment, they asked 135 educators to watch 12 short video clips of kids in classrooms and to look for signs of "challenging behavior." There were four children in each clip: a black boy and black girl, and a white boy and white girl. Lead researcher Walter Gilliam told USA Today:

We told the teachers that we were interested in learning how quickly and accurately they could detect challenging behaviors in preschoolers. What we did not tell the teachers was that the preschoolers in the videos were all actors assisting us in the study, and that no challenging behaviors were depicted in the videos.

Using an eye tracking system that follows and records a person's gaze, researchers found that while watching the clips, both black and white teachers spent more time observing the black children -- especially black boys. Gilliam told The Washington Post:

That’s a sign that teachers expect problems from black children, and especially black boys. It’s a finding that shows how deeply rooted racial biases are and how badly teachers need training to confront and unravel the knee-jerk perceptions of their students - perceptions they often don’t even realize they have.

For the second experiment, teachers were asked to read a paragraph about a student's classroom misbehavior. Each vignette was assigned a stereotypically black or white boy or girl name: DeShawn or Latoya, and Jake or Emily. According to NPR:

White teachers consistently held black students to a lower standard, rating their behavior as less severe than the same behavior of white students. Black teachers, on the other hand, did the opposite, holding black students to a higher standard and rating their behavior as consistently more severe than that of white students.

Half of the teachers also received a brief description detailing each fictional child’s difficult home environment to test for an empathetic response. According to USA Today:

Those brief descriptions actually had the opposite effect on teachers based on their own race.... When presented with the background information, white teachers rated black and white students’ behavior as equally severe. In other words, knowing more about a student’s home life tended to equalize attitudes about how he or she should behave.... But when given the background information, black teachers’ expectations flipped: they rated white students’ behavior as more severe.

Researchers were ethically obligated to follow up with all the teachers in the study to tell them the real purpose of the research, and to give them a chance to withdraw their data. Only one teacher did. Gilliam told The Atlantic:

Early educators are not immune to implicit biases. No one is. But by recognizing the harm these prejudices have on children they serve, preschool teachers represent perhaps our nation's best frontline defense against the negative impacts of implicit biases.

State of Opportunity has previously discussed research that shows white teachers are more likely to expect black students to fail. But this new study shows that teachers, both black and white, have work to do when it comes to addressing their own bias in the classroom.

Paulette is a blogger for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously interned as a reporter in the Michigan Radio newsroom.
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