Racial Bias in Preschool

It’s been a busy month for me, and I’ve started to develop a backlog of potential posts. Here’s an idea from almost a month ago (!):

On my way into school, I heard this piece on NPR: “Racial Bias Isn’t Just a Police Problem, It’s a Preschool Problem”. With a wife who teaches pre-school in a school that is roughly 98% African American, I was immediately intrigued. The focus of the piece, it turns out, was a study on implicit bias done by the Yale Child Study Center. The findings? That teachers are often implicitly biased in their classroom discipline.

This kind of work is important in helping to bring broader exposure to the problem of implicit bias, something all teachers (all people) need to be made aware of. Until we begin to recognize our implicit biases–thus making them explicit–we can’t work to counteract them. And yet, this story actually obscures a different implicit bias–one which the study seems to suggest might be more substantial than racial bias.

Here’s the gist of the study, and the kernel of the findings:

At a big, annual conference for pre-K teachers, Gilliam and his team recruited 135 educators to watch a few short videos. Here’s what they told them:

We are interested in learning about how teachers detect challenging
behavior in the classroom. Sometimes this involves seeing behavior before it becomes problematic. The video segments you are about to view are of preschoolers engaging in various activities. Some clips may or may not contain challenging behaviors. Your job is to press the enter key on the external keypad every time you see a behavior that could become a potential challenge.

Each video included four children: a black boy and girl and a white boy and girl.

Here’s the deception: There was no challenging behavior.

While the teachers watched, eye-scan technology measured the trajectory of their gaze. Gilliam wanted to know: When teachers expected bad behavior, who did they watch?

“What we found was exactly what we expected based on the rates at which children are expelled from preschool programs,” Gilliam says. “Teachers looked more at the black children than the white children, and they looked specifically more at the African-American boy.”

Indeed, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, black children are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended from preschool than white children. Put another way, black children account for roughly 19 percent of all preschoolers, but nearly half of preschoolers who get suspended.

One reason that number is so high, Gilliam suggests, is that teachers spend more time focused on their black students, expecting bad behavior. “If you look for something in one place, that’s the only place you can typically find it.”

However, the next line of the article piece is the one that really got me thinking: “The Yale team also asked subjects to identify the child they felt required the most attention. Forty-two percent identified the black boy, 34 percent identified the white boy, while 13 percent and 10 percent identified the white and black girls respectively.”

This would appear to be in keeping with the title of the piece, and it fits nicely into the current debate over systemic and institutional bias in other areas of American life, such as criminal justice. If we look a bit more closely, though, we notice that black girls may actually receive less scrutiny than white girls. And girls in general appear to receive about one-third of the scrutiny that boys do. In fact, seventy-six percent of participants said that boys (regardless of race) required more attention to keep them in line, while only 23% said that girls did.

To me, this suggests more of a gender bias than a racial one.  I know that, thoughout my career, I have tended to see more “troublesome behavior” in boys, and I suspect that girls get away with more in class than boys do. This brings to mind the “boy crisis”–a hotly debated concept in education, but one which I think has at least some merit (even if the name itself is a bit melodramatic). I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call it a crisis, but I do think there is something to the idea. Why is it that boys are prescribed ADHD medications at rates far outstripping girls? Why is it that boys are suspended from school more often? Why is it that more boys are identified as “special needs” students? These things can’t all be accidents. Perhaps some of it stems from this implicit bias–the same one that the author of this piece seems to miss altogether.

To be sure, racially discriminatory discipline practices are real and problematic; they need to be exposed and addressed. I am by no means disputing that. But I think that this story actually obscures another problem that is potentially bigger (at least in terms of sheer numbers). As educators, we must work to ameliorate conditions which disadvantage black boys, absolutely, but as we do so, let’s not forget that most boys find school to be a challenge at some point. Are there changes we can make that would serve them all?

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