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 »


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 »


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 »


That’s Not Teacher-Like

Posted by on September 24, 2012

I’ve been reading Albert Shanker’s “The Power of Ideas: Al In His Own Words,” the American Educator’s compendium of Al’s speeches and columns, published posthumously in 1997. What an enjoyable, witty and informative collection of essays.

Two columns especially caught my attention: “That’s Very Unprofessional Mr. Shanker!” and “Does Pavarotti Need to File an Aria Plan” – where Al discusses expectations for (and treatment of) teachers. They made me reflect, yet again, on whether perceptions of teacher professionalism might be gendered. In other words, when society thinks of the attributes of a professional teacher, might we unconsciously be thinking of women teachers? And, if so, why might this be important?

In “That’s Very Unprofessional, Mr. Shanker!” Al writes: Read More »


Mind The Gap

Posted by on June 20, 2012

We have been engaged in decades-long public policy debates on gaps and how best to close them: the income gap, the student achievement gap, gender-linked gaps in employment opportunities. But why do we care so much about gaps? In a land of diversity, why are subgroup differences such a concern?

At a basic level, we care about gaps because (or when) our fundamental assumption is that, on a “level playing field,” there should be no systematic differences among people based on ascribed traits, such as race and gender, that are unrelated to the “game.” It is “ok” if a specific Hispanic kid performs at a lower level than his/her white counterpart or vice-versa. But it’s not ok if, on average, Hispanic students’ test scores systematically lag behind that of similar white children. Why? Because we know intelligence and ability are normally distributed across racial/ethnic groups. So, when groups differ in important outcomes, we know that this “distance” is indicative of other problems.

What problems exactly? That is a more complex question. Read More »


Rethinking Affirmative Action

Posted by on May 16, 2012

Affirmative action has been defined as “voluntary and mandatory efforts undertaken by federal, state, and local governments, private employers and schools to combat discrimination, foster fair hiring and advancement of qualified individuals regardless of their race, ethnicity and gender; and to promote equal opportunity in education and employment for all.” It is also a highly controversial policy, with few fans and many detractors.

Some of this is due to the history of expedient implementation, where affirmative action came to mean a ham-handed system of quotas. But much of the unease is due to disagreement with the policy’s intent.

Many conservatives argue that fairness requires that we do away with preferences and treat everyone exactly the same way. Meanwhile, some liberals criticize nondiscrimination statutes for their focus on race, religion, and gender to the exclusion of socioeconomic factors that can be more limiting. How, they argue, could you consider the son of an African-American neurosurgeon to be more disadvantaged than the son of an illiterate white sharecropper?  It’s a very good question. Read More »


What Do We Do When Second Graders Think Math Is Not For Girls?

Posted by on July 5, 2011

Although the past several generations have seen declining gender inequalities in educational attainment, gender-based differences in the fields of study we choose seem to persist (see here). For example, the percentage of women obtaining degrees in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields has remained exceedingly static in the last few decades (see here).

In trying to explain this persistent trend, some conclude that (1) women are not as interested in these fields, and/or that (2) women just aren’t as good as men in these domains. But how would one tell whether these explanations are right or wrong?

One problem is that people share specific, culturally based ideas about what men and women are and should be. Numerous studies demonstrate that the dearth of women in STEM fields can be directly linked to negative associations regarding girls and the sciences, and especially girls and math ability (see here and here). Read More »


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