Race, Bias, and Learning

I was with a group of top educational leaders in Oregon yesterday.  (By the way, check out Oregon’s approach to moving to a robust system of PreK-20 education.  In Oregon, they have enacted some of the most sweeping changes to improve their schooling system than I know of in any other state.  Great executive branch, legislative branch and civic leadership going on there.)

The topic of achievement gaps, race, and poverty came up.  I mentioned the incredible work we did with our teachers in Delaware to close achievement gaps along poverty lines.  I also mentioned that when comparing African American students NOT from poverty against the performance data of all students, we did not make progress (compared with the poverty vs. non-poverty groups).  This is in spite of the fact that African American children comprised the overwhelming majority of the students from poverty backgrounds.

What I then mentioned and what I remain to be left with, is that we continue to infuse bias into the work with kids.  Even subconsciously, this is a significant problem.  As much as we want to move beyond race, gender, class, and other differentiators, it does appear that race continues to play a factor in far too many issues in school.  This appears especially true  for African American students-and with boys even more than girls.  New studies show that Black children are disciplined more often, engaged in less-authentic ways, called-upon less often to answer teacher questions, and provided less wait-time when they are called on.

A 2006 study by Duke University revealed that White and Latino/Latina citizens overwhelmingly perceive that Black citizens do not “work hard” and “can[not] be trusted”.    The study was summarized by Paula McClain in The Journal of Politics.  The same study was much more favorable among White citizens perceiving Latino/Latina citizens.

While the study was not conducted in schools, I think this issue is even worse in schools.  CNN’s Anderson Cooper revealed the follow-up on a study with young children and their attitudes on race.  His video footage revealed a very young African American boy who stated that it is too difficult to have a light-skinned (White) friend because “your Mother won’t like it”.  Wow-is this the best we can do in 2012?

Aside from the disturbing societal implications, this has grave consequences for our educational system.

We must solve this in the hearts and minds of all educators to ensure that we create high expectations for all kids and sufficient access to great work and supports for all kids.

I’d appreciate learning from your perspective and reading comments on how we solve these issues.



2 Comments on “Race, Bias, and Learning

  1. This is a very interesting topic…as a father of two black young men I find this theroy no to hold up very strongly.
    1. We noticed an inferrior response from the white race when black boys exceed expectations, in the classroom as well as on the playground. My sons have experienced this since they started school…they are 15 now. After a while they ge discouraged and stop partcipating. They seem to be accepted then.
    A great example of this is…the basketball rims at most K-5 grade schools are lowered…lowering the standared for all to make it…this is not a challange to most black boys
    2. In several cases teachers cannot relate to issues they aren’t familiar with…so it’s usually deemed a disciplined issue.
    A remedy to this is
    a. make equal, equal. really mean it.
    b. and continue to raise the bar and encourage competition.
    c. remove age level learning and go to the mind set of the student. This will also eliminate some children getting bored.
    d. select caring professionals first then train them


    • Thank you. When all is said and done the bias comes from all sides and hurts others, especially students. Your ideas are worth pursuing and I might turn the points for improvement you made into a separate blog post for others to pay more close attention to. It all starts with facing the truth, and accepting that we have the impediments to students’ success and then working our way out of current state. Your candor and openness are encouraging. Please stay tuned! JW

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