Training Racial Bias Out of Teachers: Who Ever Said that We Could? Will the Fact that In-Service Programs Cannot Eliminate Implicit Bias Create a Bias Toward Inaction?
Since this past March (2020), a series of somewhat unrelated events have merged to create an indelible “call to action” that will hopefully improve the equity and excellence of our schools for generations to come.
The first set of events involve the COVID-19 pandemic, the closing of school buildings last March, the move to virtual instruction and education, and the continuing virtual, hybrid, or on-site issues—this current school year—as we try to balance the physical health of students and educators with their academic and social-emotional health.
The second set of events has a 400-year history—back to the year when slaves first arrived in the American colonies. But this history crystallized this year with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks (and 188 other black citizens as of November 30, 2020) at the hands of police officers across this country. These atrocities redoubled the efforts of the Black Lives Matter social movement that was founded in 2013 in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer.
The merging of these events is evident, for example, in that:
- Black (and Hispanic) Americans have disproportionately died (or become ill) from COVID-19—resulting in financial, social, emotional, and other disruptions to the school-aged children in these homes.
- Black (Hispanic, Native American, poor, and rural) students have disproportionately less access to computers, high quality computers, and internet connections and bandwidth such that their ability to engage in virtual instruction has been impaired.
- Black (Hispanic, Native American, poor, and rural) students have disproportionately higher rates of virtual, hybrid, and on-site attendance problems since the pandemic began.
- Many educators covered less academic (or no new academic) material during virtual instruction last Spring as well as during the early part of the current school year, and Black (Hispanic and poor) students are still taught more often by new, inexperienced teachers.
Overall, Black (Hispanic, Native American, rural, and poor) students have been hit disproportionately harder by the Pandemic than other student groups. They have experienced additional disparities such as more food insecurity, and the lack of access and availability of critical social and community services.
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The Pandemic Reinforces What We Already Know About Educational Inequity and Disparity
Relative to the social, economic, and educational inequities and disparities noted above, most educators understand the student-specific academic and health, mental health, and wellness effects of this pandemic—particularly among students of color, living in poverty, with disabilities, English-language learners, and students who are homeless. These educators also know that most of these the social, economic, and educational inequities and disparities have existed for generations, and that they were not magically transformed or resolved by the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision on May 17, 1954.
For our part, we have discussed these and related topics many times over the past year—extending the discussion to the inequities in educational funding for schools that teach predominantly students of color, and how this funding may triangulate both with these students’ achievement and the disproportionate discipline that they experience.
To review the most recent of these relevant Blog articles, [CLICK the DATE to LINK]:
Celebrating Our Labors on Labor Day . . . While Recognizing the Contribution of White Privilege
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Do Black and Students with Disabilities’ Lives Matter to the U.S. Department of Education? Institutional Bias, Power-Based Decisions, and Ineffective Practices?
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The Pandemic Unearths the Raw Reality of Educational Inequity and Disparity: COVID-19 Forces Us to Realize We Need to Change the Village
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Maybe It’s the (Lack of) Money that Explains the Relationship Between Black-White Achievement Gaps and Disproportionate Disciplinary Suspensions?
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But now, let’s add some wrinkles.
At a systems level, the additional funding that districts need due to the Pandemic is sparking serious national and state legislative discussions that now is the time to fully address (a) the inequitable funding of schools that teach predominantly students of color, and (b) the full funding for students with disabilities across our country.
At the staff level, rekindled attention on implicit racial bias has initiated a wave of district- and school-level implicit bias discussions and trainings to address this significant problem.
However, relative to implicit bias training, there are a number of issues and concerns. These are embodied in the following questions:
Can we really train educators—through a professional development program—out of their implicit racial biases?
Will the fact that in-service programs cannot eliminate, on a functional and sustained level, implicit bias result in a bias toward inaction or a resistance to action?
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Can Implicit Bias be “Trained” Out of Educators: The Answer and Resulting Problems
Just last month (November 17, 2020), Education Week published an article questioning whether teachers can be “trained” out of their implicit biases [CLICK HERE to Link to this Original Article].
Among many important points, the article states:
Several large-scale analyses of research on implicit-bias training suggest it more often changes short-term knowledge about the vocabulary of diversity than long-term changes in behavior. Several specific common strategies—such as thinking positive thoughts about stereotyped groups, meditating or making decisions more “slowly” to avoid stereotypes, or simply being aware of the possibility of implicit biases while making decisions—have all so far failed to show benefits that last even a day or two.
In some cases, diversity and anti-bias training can paradoxically lead to more stereotyping, if participants come to think of biases as common and uncontrollable, and can lead white participants to feel threatened without yielding benefits for participants of color. Rather, evidence suggests staff training can be helpful, but only as part of a comprehensive strategy that includes identifying specific problems and strategies to address structures that perpetuate bias in a school system.
Given this information, it appears that the answer to our first question is:
No. . . we really cannot train educators—through a professional development program—out of their implicit racial biases?
A significant concern relative to this first question and answer, however, is that some educational leaders across the country do not know this research, and they are requiring their staff’s participation in “one-shot” implicit bias in-service sessions with the hope that these will alleviate any problems they have in this area.
This, in fact, includes some state departments of education—that are thinking about requiring implicit bias training for all educators across their respective states, as well as a number of school districts that are also considering this training for their students.
[Parenthetically, there are all too many consultants available to provide these in-service sessions, and to up-sell the district to more expensive “programs” that are unresearched and untested, and that run the risk of creating new or exacerbating old issues and problems.]
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A second concern here is that some educators (and others) may misinterpret the statement that “implicit bias training is not successful with teachers in schools,” and conclude (as in the quote above) that teachers’ implicit bias—when it is present—cannot be changed.
This, then, may create either a bias toward inaction or a resistance to action.
The bias toward inaction will occur when educators view implicit bias as intractable and ask, “Why bother planning and allocating the time, effort, training, discussion, and resources to something that cannot be changed?”
The resistance to action will occur when educators plan a well-designed, systemic implicit bias change effort only to have colleagues view it as pointless, asking, “Why commit to and engage in any training, discussion, or initiative that attempts to change something that cannot be changed?”
Given this, we do not want the research cited in the Education Week article to result either in a bias toward inaction or a resistance to action. In order to prevent this, we need to describe the elements of an implicit bias initiative that have the highest probability of success.
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How Do We Decrease or Eliminate Implicit Racial Bias in Schools?
Critically, no one ever said that implicit bias could be decreased or eliminated in schools through an in-service program or a “pre-packaged” approach. In fact, as implicit bias is historical and systemic in nature, it is not surprising that short-term approaches initiatives to address it have not been terribly successful. In the final analysis, systemic problems need systemic and community-wide solutions.
To this end, the November 17th Education Week article noted that:
Research suggests stand-alone anti-bias training may not change long-term behavior. For leaders working to make their schools more equitable, studies suggest some alternatives to common pitfalls.
Among the alternatives suggested in the article were the following:
- Integrating training in a comprehensive diversity plan that involves teachers and other adults at school in reviewing policy, practices and structures that can promote bias, not just a stand-alone PD session.
- Setting specific goals based on the needs of your school and any problems you have identified to be addressed.
- Acknowledge that conversations about bias will be uncomfortable and give participants tools to manage their emotions while accepting feedback.
- Emphasizing a few clear strategies for managing bias with examples of what anti-biased awareness and behavior would look like in practice for different groups within the school (e.g., math teachers, guidance counselors, discipline officers).
- Connecting training evaluations back to the school’s larger diversity goals, such as increasing the proportion of students of color referred to advanced courses or shrinking discipline gaps.
Significantly, these recommendations emphasize the importance of integrating an implicit bias initiative into a district’s strategic planning and school improvement plan and processes. They also recognize that the systemic change process must not be rushed relative to the progressive involvement of students, staff, administration, families, and community partners.
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Beyond this, we think it is important to take a science-to-practice perspective on what different educators may need (through an implicit bias initiative) to change any biases that are present and active. The point here is that there are a number of possible “root causes” underlying implicit bias, and a “one size fits all” methodology that attempts to simultaneously address all of these causes is as unlikely to work as a one-shot in-service session.
Thus, some of the reasons why implicit bias occurs for educators in schools across the country includes the following:
- Gaps in Knowledge and Information. Some educators (and students) demonstrate bias because they do not have (a) the social, interactional, or factual information, knowledge, and understanding regarding past and present Black history and culture; (b) the background knowledge and information about the social and individual psychology of personal attitudes and beliefs; or (c) the problem-solving knowledge and information regarding ways to analyze and understand events or situations involving different cultures, races, or individual differences.
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- Issues Related to Personal Beliefs or Attributions. Some educators (and students) demonstrate bias because they have faulty attitudes, expectations, beliefs, and/or attributions about Black (and other minority—or other) individuals that range from being inaccurate, unfair, or unfeeling to those that are biased or prejudicial. When they are unaware of these beliefs or attributions (or their implications), they could be considered implicit. When they are aware of them, the bias or prejudice would be considered “motivated” (see below).
While determining their origin is necessary in many cases, the more essential task is to make the educator consciously and explicitly aware of their faulty beliefs or attributions, and then to change them.
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- Individual Skills and Responses. Some educators (and students) have the knowledge and information, as well as the “right” beliefs or attributions. . . but they demonstrate bias nonetheless because they do not have the prosocial skills or responses to interact effectively with Black (or other minority background) students (or even adults). Sometimes this occurs because these educators have not been taught the needed interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention or resolution, or emotional control, communication, or coping skills. At other times, the skill gap exists because the educator is having difficulty applying specific skills to specific situations.
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- Motivation and Accountability. Some educators (and students) have the knowledge and information, the right beliefs or attributions, and the prosocial skills and responses. . . but they choose not to demonstrate them with Black (or other minority background) students (or even adults). As noted earlier, this situation involves explicit, planned, and conscious bias or prejudice. This situation is even worse when others around the educator do not hold him or her accountable for the inappropriate—if not shocking and shameful—behavior.
There is no “middle road” here. Educators who are consciously biased or prejudiced need immediate sanctions and remediation. At an extreme level, such educators need to be terminated, and the documentation of the situation needs to be retained in their personnel files. . . and shared with other potential employers as appropriate.
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- Consistency. Some educators (and students) have inconsistent beliefs or attributions, and/or prosocial skills and responses to the degree that their interactions with Black (or other minority background) students (or adults) are similarly inconsistent and situational. While the source of the inconsistency might be evaluated, these educators need to be made aware of their inconsistencies, as well as the expectation that continued inconsistency is not acceptable.
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Once again, over the course of a comprehensive implicit bias initiative—in a school or across a district—ongoing, layered, and multi-dimensional presentation, training, discussion, implementation, coaching, mentoring, supervision, and evaluation activities need to be planned and provided that cover the different root causes above in an effective way.
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This Blog article focused on a recent Education Week article that summarized several large-scale research analyses that concluded that implicit bias training in schools (a) “more often changes short-term knowledge about the vocabulary of diversity than long-term changes in behavior”; that (b) the such trainings fail “to show benefits that last even a day or two”; and (c) “(i)n some cases, diversity and anti-bias training can paradoxically lead to more stereotyping, if participants come to think of biases as common and uncontrollable, and can lead white participants to feel threatened without yielding benefits for participants of color.”
These results should discourage educational leaders from offering “one-shot” implicit bias in-service sessions with the hope that they will alleviate any potential or actual staff issues in this area.
But these results should not be interpreted [as in Point (c) above] to mean that “implicit bias training cannot be successful with educators in schools,” or that educators’ implicit bias—when it is present—cannot be changed.
To accomplish this, however, requires a systemic and community-wide initiative that (a) is part of a comprehensive diversity plan involving changes in policies, practices, and structures; and (b) is integrated into a district’s strategic planning and school improvement plan and processes.
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I appreciate your consideration of the issues and points in this Blog.
The issues related to racial inequity—in education and elsewhere in our society—need to be addressed from “top-down” and “bottom-up” perspectives. The top-down requires the involvement of federal, state, and district-level leaders. The bottom-up requires the involvement of students, staff, and families.
This is not easy work. But we can no longer avoid this work—as we have, for example, since the desegregation of Central High School by the Little Rock Nine on September 4, 1957. I choose this example from a personal perspective, because Central High School is about 10 miles from my home, and I have attended innumerable meetings there over the years.
I thank you for your dedication to education, and the students and families that you serve. Know that I am always available to discuss these issues with you and your team.
But please also know how I differ from others who do similar work:
1. Everything that I do is focused on YOUR success. . . .and the success of your students, staff, schools, colleagues, and community.
2. I "do my homework" and personalize all of my work--using data-driven and research-based approaches-- to look at YOUR history, trends, strengths, resources, gaps, and needs.
3. I am uniquely interested in YOU. I want to know you and your colleagues on a personal and professional level, and I want to be a member of "your team" during our time together.
4. You can depend on my honesty, integrity, compassion, passion, and dependability. I will not avoid the "challenging conversations" with you, and I will not ignore the "seven-ton elephant in the room."
5. I will over-deliver. I do not "work" as a consultant. I live to be a consultant.
If these "mission statements" resonate with you, and you believe that a partnership together can help you and your colleagues move from "great to greater," please feel free to contact me. Let's begin your journey to your next level of excellence together.
I hope to hear from you soon.