Not All Discipline Disparities May Be The Result Of Implicit Bias

Posted by on July 24, 2014

Over the past few months, we have heard a lot about discipline disparities by race/ethnicity and gender — disparities that begin in the earliest years of schooling. According to the Civil Rights Data Collection Project by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, “black students represent 18% of preschool enrollment, but 42% of preschool students suspended once and 48% of students suspended more than once.” It also found that “boys receive more than three out of four out-of-school preschool suspensions.”

This focus on student discipline disparities has also drawn attention to the research on implicit bias — the idea that we all harbor unconscious attitudes that tend to favor individuals from some groups (whites, males, those judged to be good looking, etc.), and that disadvantage people from other groups (people of color, women, ethnic minorities, etc.). The concept of implicit bias suggests that good or bad behavior is often in the eye of the beholder, and disparities in disciplinary outcomes (e.g., suspensions and expulsions) may be influenced by unconscious stereotypes.

Part of me is very glad that we are finally having this conversation. Acknowledging the existence and consequences of subtle, implicit forms of prejudice is an important and necessary first step toward mitigating their effects and advancing toward fairness — see my implicit bias series here. But it sometimes seems that the discipline and the implicit bias conversations are one and the same, and this concerns me for two reasons. Read More »

Do Students Learn More When Their Teachers Work Together?

Posted by on July 17, 2014

This is the second post in a series on “The Social Side Of Reform”, exploring the idea that relationships, social capital, and social networks matter in lasting, systemic educational improvement. For more on this series, click here.

Debates about how to improve educational outcomes for students often involve two ‘camps’: Those who focus on the impact of “in-school factors” on student achievement; and those who focus on “out-of-school factors.” There are many in-school factors discussed but improving the quality of individual teachers (or teachers’ human capital) is almost always touted as the main strategy for school improvement. Out-of-school factors are also numerous but proponents of this view tend toward addressing broad systemic problems such as poverty and inequality.

Social capital — the idea that relationships have value, that social ties provide access to important resources like knowledge and support, and that a group’s performance can often exceed that of the sum of its members — is something that rarely makes it into the conversation. But why does social capital matter?

Research suggests that teachers’ social capital may be just as important to student learning as their human capital. In fact, some studies indicate that if school improvement policies addressed teachers’ human and social capital simultaneously, they would go a long way toward mitigating the effects of poverty on student outcomes. Sounds good, right? The problem is: Current policy does not resemble this approach. Researchers, commentators and practitioners have shown and lamented that many of the strategies leveraged to increase teachers’ human capital often do so at the expense of eroding social capital in our schools. In other words, these approaches are moving us one step forward and two steps back. Read More »

Challenging Content In The Early Grades: What’s Not To Love?

Posted by on June 26, 2014

The latest issue of The Progress of Education Reform (released a few days ago by the Education Commission of the States) rounds up some recent research supporting the case that “all children need high quality early science learning experiences” and “science supports children’s learning and school readiness in other areas” — see here. The brief argues that even though science has not traditionally received the attention afforded to other preschool domains, such as literacy and mathematics, “science content and skills are critical and do not detract from literacy development; “in fact, [science] contributes to the goal that all children read with understanding by grade 3.”

These statements should come as no surprise. At the Institute, we have long advocated teaching rich, challenging content (including in English language arts, math and science) in the early years. Knowledge, which is what’s underneath words and vocabulary, is the foundation for acquiring more knowledge; it’s what allows us to read with understanding — or read to learn. This is important because it means that we must focus on teaching children about a wide range of interesting “stuff” – including, as the ECS report argues, early science. As I wrote elsewhere:

It’s important to start teaching knowledge in the early years and through oral language because children’s preexisting knowledge creates a framework that facilitates the acquisition of new information; knowing more words and concepts scaffolds children’s ability to slot novel information in the “right places,” and to learn related words and concepts more efficiently. Read More »

Can Early Language Development Promote Children’s Psychological Wellbeing?

Posted by on May 13, 2014

We know oral language is young children’s door into the world of knowledge and ideas, the foundation for reading, and the bedrock of all academic learning. But, can language also protect young kids against behavioral problems?

A number of studies have identified a co-occurrence of language delays and behavioral maladjustment, an association that remains after controlling for socio-demographic characteristics and academic achievement (here and here). However, most research on the issue has been cross-sectional and correlational making it hard to establish whether behavioral issues cause language delays, language delays cause behavioral issues, or another factor is responsible for both.

A recent paper by Marc Bornstein, Chun-Shin Hahn, and Joan Suwalsky (2013) was able to shed some light on these questions concluding that “language competencies in early childhood keep behavioral adjustment problems at bay.” This is important given the fact that minority children raised in poverty tend to have smaller than average vocabularies and are also overrepresented in pre-K expulsions and suspensions. Read More »

We Can’t Just Raise Expectations

Posted by on April 30, 2014

* Reprinted here in the Washington Post

What exactly is “a culture of high expectations” and how is it created? In fact, what are expectations? I ask these questions because I hear this catchphrase a lot, but it doesn’t seem like the real barriers to developing such a culture are well understood. If we are serious about raising expectations for all learners, we need to think seriously about what expectations are, how they work and what it might take to create environments that equalize high expectations for what students can achieve.

In this post I explain why I think the idea of “raising expectations” — when used carelessly and as a slogan — is meaningless. Expectations are not test-scores. They are related to standards but are not the same thing. Expectations are a complex and unobservable construct — succinctly, they are unconscious anticipations of performance. Changing expectations for competence is not easy, but it is possible — I get at some of that later.

Certain conditions, however, need to be in place — e.g., a broad conceptualization of ability, a cooperative environment etc. It is unclear that these conditions are present in many of our schools. In fact, many are worried that the opposite is happening. The research and theory I examine here suggest that extreme standardization and competition are incompatible with equalizing expectations in the classroom. They suggest, rather, that current reforms might be making it more difficult to develop and sustain high expectations for all students, and to create classrooms where all students experience similar opportunities to learn. Read More »

Why A Diverse Teaching Force?

Posted by on April 24, 2014

This is the third in a series of three posts about implicit bias. Here are the first and second parts.

The arguments for increasing the representation of people of color in teaching are often based around two broad rationales. First is the idea that, in a diverse, democratic society, teachers of color can serve as important role models for all children. The second idea is that teachers of color are particularly well suited to teaching students of color because they possess an inherent understanding of the culture and backgrounds of these learners.

I can think of at least two additional pro-diversity arguments that are relevant here, not only for schools but also for the broader landscape of work organizations. First, diversity can increase everyone’s sense of “fitting in” in a given setting; social belonging is a basic human need that can in turn predict a wide range of favorable outcomes. Second, diversity can do more than offer role models. Repeated exposure to male pre-K teachers or black, female high school principals can challenge and expand our thinking about who is or is not  suited to certain tasks – and even the nature of those jobs and the skills required to do them. This is important to the much broader goal of fairness and equality because it contributes to disrupting strong stereotypic associations present in our culture that too often limit opportunities for people of color and women.

As I noted the first two posts of my implicit bias series (here and here), intergroup contact is one of the best researched means of reducing explicit (here and here) and unconscious (racial, gender) bias (here and here). This post explains why and how faculty diversity can act as an institution-level “de-biasing” policy or strategy. Read More »

What Is Implicit Bias, And How Might It Affect Teachers And Students? (Part II – Solutions)

Posted by on April 17, 2014

This is the second in a series of three posts about implicit bias. Here are the first and third parts.

In my first post on this topic, I argued that teachers are better positioned than, say, doctors or judges, to learn specifics about the individuals they serve. This strategy – called “individuating” – has proven to be effective in reducing implicit biases (related to race, gender, ethnicity, etc.). This post offers additional thoughts on how we might support teachers’ orientation to get to know their students. Second, I discuss additional strategies that have been proven to be effective in mitigating the effects of implicit biases.

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague asked a great question during the Shanker Institute’s Good Schools Seminar on “Creating Safe and Supportive Schools.” His question was motivated by a presentation on implicit bias by Kirwan Institute director Sharon Davies. The question was: Wouldn’t you expect more conscious, systematic decision-making (and fewer automatic, snap judgments) from teachers who, after all, see their students everyday and get to know them well? (See here, minute 50:55.)

As I related in the previous post, individuating (or learning about the particulars of a person, his/her interests, skills, family, etc.) can be a very effective “de-biasing” tool.* So, how might we leverage and support teachers’ natural inclination to get to know students well? How might a potential de-biasing intervention build on this feature of teachers’ work? Read More »

What Is Implicit Bias, And How Might It Affect Teachers And Students? (Part One)

Posted by on April 4, 2014

This is the first in a series of three posts about implicit bias. Here are the second and third parts.

The research on implicit bias both fascinates and disturbs people. It’s pretty cool to realize that many everyday mental processes happen so quickly as to be imperceptible. But the fact that they are so automatic, and therefore outside of our conscious control, can be harder to stomach.

In other words, the invisible mental shortcuts that allow us to function can be quite problematic – and real barrier to social equality and fairness – in contexts where careful thinking and decision-making are necessary. Accumulating evidence reveals that “implicit biases” are linked to discriminatory outcomes ranging from the seemingly mundane, such as poorer quality interactions, to the highly consequential, such as constrained employment opportunities and a decreased likelihood of receiving life-saving emergency medical treatments.

Two excellent questions about implicit bias came up during our last Good Schools Seminar on “Creating Safe and Supportive Schools.” Read More »

Can Knowledge Level The Learning Field For Children?

Posted by on November 20, 2013

** Reprinted here in the Core Knowledge Blog

How much do preschoolers from disadvantaged and more affluent backgrounds know about the world and why does that matter? One recent study by Tanya Kaefer (Lakehead University) Susan B. Neuman (New York University) and Ashley M. Pinkham (University of Michigan) provides some answers.

The researchers randomly selected children from preschool classrooms in two sites, one serving kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, the other serving middle-class kids. They then set about to answer three questions: Read More »

Words Reflect Knowledge

Posted by on November 8, 2013

I was fascinated when I started to read about the work of Betty Hart and Todd Risley and the early language differences between children growing up in different socioeconomic circumstances. But it took me a while to realize that we care about words primarily because of what words indicate about knowledge. This is important because it means that we must focus on teaching children about a wide range of interesting “stuff” – not just vocabulary for vocabulary’s sake. So, if words are the tip of the iceberg, what lies underneath? This metaphor inspired me to create the short animation below. Check it out! Read More »

The Word Gap

Posted by on October 31, 2013

** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

It is now well established that children’s oral language development is crucial to their academic success, with the documentation of profound differences in word learning and the acquisition of content knowledge between children living in poverty and those from more economically advantaged homes. By the time they enter school, children from advantaged backgrounds may know as many as 15,000 more words than their less affluent peers. This early language gap sets children up to be at risk for other all too familiar gaps, such as the gaps in high school graduation, arrest and incarceration, post-secondary education, and lifetime earnings. So, what can we do to prevent this “early catastrophe”?

If a child suffers from malnutrition, simply giving him/her more food might not be sufficient to alleviate the problem. A better approach would be to figure out which specific foods and supplements best provide the vitamins and nutrients that are needed, and then deliver these to the child. Recent press coverage on the “word gap,” spurred by initiatives such as Too Small to Fail and Thirty Million Words, suffers from a similar failing.

Don’t get me wrong, the initiatives themselves are hugely important and have done a truly commendable job of focusing public attention on a chronic and chronically overlooked problem. It’s just that the messages that have, thus far, made their way forward are predominantly about quantity – i.e., exposing children to more words and more talk – paying comparatively less attention to qualitative aspects, such as the nature and especially the content of adult-child interactions. Read More »

Getting Teacher Evaluation Right

Posted by on October 30, 2013

Linda Darling-Hammond’s new book, Getting Teacher Evaluation Right, is a detailed, practical guide about how to improve the teaching profession. It leverages the best research and best practices, offering actionable, illustrated steps to getting teacher evaluation right, with rich examples from the U.S. and abroad.

Here I offer a summary of the book’s main arguments and conclude with a couple of broad questions prompted by the book. But, before I delve into the details, here’s my quick take on Darling-Hammond’s overall stance.

We are at a crossroads in education; two paths lay before us. The first seems shorter, easier and more straightforward. The second seems long, winding and difficult. The big problem is that the first path does not really lead to where we need to go; in fact, it is taking us in the opposite direction. So, despite appearances, more steady progress will be made if we take the more difficult route. This book is a guide on how to get teacher evaluation right, not how to do it quickly or with minimal effort. So, in a way, the big message or take away is: There are no shortcuts. Read More »

Why Do So Many Workers Have Bad Jobs?

Posted by on October 9, 2013

About one in five American workers today have jobs that offer low wages, poor benefits and few opportunities for advancement. But what can you do, right? After all, don’t we know that what’s good for business is often not good for people?

Not really, argues Zeynep Ton, an adjunct associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, in this recent article. Although the conventional wisdom is that companies have no choice but to pay their employees poorly to remain competitive, Ton’s research suggests the opposite is true: When companies invest in their workforce, everybody wins.

Ton studied the practices of four highly regarded retailers – Mercadona*, QuikTrip, Trader Joe’s, and Costco – and found that “highly successful retail chains not only invest heavily in store employees but also have the lowest prices in their industries, solid financial performance, and better customer service than their competitors.” Indeed, low wages are “not a cost-driven necessity but a choice.” Her analysis suggest that one key to breaking the perceived trade-off is “a combination of investment in the workforce and operational practices that benefit employees, customers, and the company.” Read More »

The Plural Of Anecdote Is Data

Posted by on April 11, 2013

** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

Last week, I attended a Center for American Progress (CAP) discussion, where UC Berkeley professor David Kirp spoke about his research on Union City’s school system, and offered some ideas from his new book, Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools.

Kirp’s work and Union City have received a lot of attention in the last month or so, and while most find the story heartening, a few commentators have had more skeptical reactions. True, this is the story of one district in one state finding success through collaboration and hard work, but research from other disciplines – sociology, business, management, organizational studies – suggests that similar human dynamics can be observed in settings other than schools and school districts. I would like to situate Kirp’s work in this broader framework; that is, among a myriad of studies – case studies, if you will – pointing to the same fundamental phenomena.

Union City is a community with an unemployment rate 60 percent higher than the national average, where three-quarters of public school students live in homes where only Spanish is spoken. About 25 years ago, the school district was in so much trouble that state officials threatened a state takeover. Since then, Union City’s measured performance has improved considerably. In 2011, almost 90 percent of the district’s students graduated from high school, and 60 percent went on to college. The change is large enough to suggest some degree of “real” improvement, and it’s plausible to believe that better school quality had at least something to do with that. So, what was Union City’s school improvement strategy? Read More »

The Educational Attainment Of Girls And Boys: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Posted by on November 7, 2012

Last month, Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani girl, was shot in the head, in an attempted assassination by Taliban militants. Her “crime” was daring to advocate for girls’ education. In a New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof observes that we in the West find it “easy to dismiss such incidents as distant barbarities,” and uses the example of sex trafficking to illustrate that we “have a blind spot for our own injustices.” I agree. However, I am not sure we need to go so far to find domestic injustices.

How about a close look within this very area: The education of girls (and boys) in the U.S.? Stories about how girls have surpassed boys in educational attainment have become common, and are often linked to statements about how boys are forgotten and/or lost. This rhetoric is troubling for several reasons. First, it can be read to imply a zero-sum equation; that is, that the educational advancement of girls is the cause of boys’ educational neglect. Second, stories about girls’ “successes” and boys’ “failures” may obscure more than they reveal.

There are the “lost boys” of higher education and the “missing girls” of STEM. We worry about boys and reading and girls and math. Recurring questions include where are the women in technology? Or, are there enough novels that cater to boys? Women have sailed past men in obtaining college degrees but, importantly, continue to concentrate in different fields and need Ph.D.s to match men with bachelor’s in the workplace.

When issues are addressed in this fragmented manner, it’s hard to tell if it’s girls or boys that we should be worrying about. Well, both and neither. What all these pieces of the puzzle really say is that – at least in this day, age, and nation – gender still matters. Read More »


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