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Author examines effects of unconscious bias in schools

Q & A with author Tracey A. Benson

Suhra Nahib
Author examines effects of unconscious bias in schools
Tracey A. Benson. PHOTO: SUHRA NAHIB

In “Unconscious Bias in Schools,” authors Tracey A. Benson and Sarah E. Fiarman discuss the racial biases of teachers and administrations in the school environment. The book, published Aug. 13, covers how these biases affect educational outcomes for students of color, as well as strategies to overcome these effects.

On the web
“Unconscious Bias in Schools” is available from Harvard Education Press:

The Banner caught up with Benson, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, last week. He is a former high school principal and received his Ed.D. in education leadership from Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Master’s in School Administration from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

The following interview has been edited for brevity.

What got you interested in unconscious bias?

Tracey A. Benson: When I was a student, I was a part of a school integration program in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The majority of my classmates were white and I was one of very few African American students. During my experience there, I knew that I was experiencing something where I was being treated differently than the white students in the school, but I didn’t know exactly what it was in elementary school.

As I began to get older, in middle school and then in high school, I started being more keenly aware of the biases that teachers had towards students of color. I noticed that we were more likely to get in trouble for behaviors that our white students were doing, but they wouldn’t get in trouble. We weren’t selected for the high-level classes for whatever reason, and we weren’t treated in the same way in terms of our intellectual ability.

And so I knew that there was something wrong, but I didn’t have the language for it. But as I got into [a career in] education, I became a teacher and eventually an assistant principal and then a principal. I started noticing the behavior that I experienced at a student was the same experience as the students of color in my school.

And so I started reading more literature around race and racism and how they function in society and schools. And that gave me the language to realize that this was a phenomenon that was more worldwide and also very apparent in schools. As a principal, I work with my teachers to sort of “surface” these issues and then develop initiatives to lessen the impact of racial class on students in very significant ways.

How does unconscious bias affect educational outcomes for students of color?

It’s very profound. There are several studies about the impacts of racial bias — one, in particular, is a study about teacher feedback to students. [It shows] how low expectations plays itself out in terms of expectations for white students and students of color. A group of researchers gave a panel of teachers an essay that was poorly written. The teachers were told was that this is an essay from a student, and to give the student feedback on the essay so they can improve the essay. But the teachers didn’t know that the researchers wrote the essay. The only thing that was different was the name on each essay. So it was a name that was associated with a student of color — a black student or a Latino student — or it was a student with a traditional white name.

What they found when they got the essays back with the teacher feedback, if the students were identified as white, the teachers gave them critical feedback and a lower grade. However, if this student was identified as a student of color, they didn’t give them as much critical feedback — it was more positive feedback and a higher grade.

So what this tells us is that these teachers have lower expectations for the students of color — that their substandard work was the best they can do. So this is how low expectations manifests itself, in everyday classroom activities that give students of color a different experience in terms of their capacity to learn. It lets them know that mediocre work is the best work they can do, but if you’re white, we’re going to push you to do better.

And then we wonder how the achievement gap exists — it’s because practices like this [are] happening all the time in classrooms.

How widespread is the problem?

I think it’s more widespread than we realize. It’s just so normalized, when we think about students and their achievement in school. So we use the term “achievement gap” or “school-to-prison pipeline” to sort of justify how black students do less well than white students, thinking that it’s a natural occurrence. It’s not a natural occurrence. This is an issue that persists, and it needs to be addressed. And our book and our work is part of addressing it.

Are black teachers and administrators less likely to discriminate than whites?

What we know is that we all live in a highly racist society, where white cultural dominance is pervasive. And so just because a person has black or brown skin doesn’t mean they haven’t been exposed to the same biased images, the same biased messages, over the course of their lifetime. Children ingest these images at very young age and then develop preferences for white society. Regardless of your skin color, we’ve all ingested these messages. 

What strategies can educators use to ensure their own biases aren’t affecting their work?

As educators, we typically want to go, “What do we do? Can we just do something? Give me a strategy.” We know with racial bias, that’s not the way it works. [It requires] that you think very deeply about your racial framing.

In our book, we talk about looking for aspects where the impact on students is racially biased. So for example, we want teachers to pay attention to just a simple and innocuous activity as whom you call on in the class. When I do classroom observations, I almost 100 percent of the time see either a gender or racial preference within the classroom.

What teachers can do is be more attentive to, and write down, whom they’re calling on in class to participate, because this is something that happens every day in every lesson. And if we’re constantly preferencing white male students, what we find over time is it’s teaching them that they have a preference in their opinions, and their words are more valuable than the black and brown students.

Have you seen instances where educators have successfully used interventions to check their biases? Is there any evidence such interventions have made a difference?

Yes. As a high school principal, I implemented a lot of the strategies we talk about in the book. One specific strategy I can talk about is removing discretion from our discipline system. This is something that anyone, any school, can implement at any particular time. When we have a tremendous amount of discretion in terms of what consequences we give students for certain behaviors, there’s going to be discrimination based on our biases.

And so what we did at the middle school where I worked, as well as the high school, was systematize how we gave consequences to students. If a student had committed an infraction, whether it was skipping class or coming to school late consistently, [there was] always a consistent and progressive consequence that aligned to the particular infraction. And what it did is, it systematized the way we gave consequences so that there wasn’t any discretion involved. It created a system where we are giving a consequence for behavior, and not so much the student.

In terms of the outcomes, what we notice is that the discrepancy between the detentions and suspensions between black and white students pretty much disappeared.

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