A young black female student sits in a classroom.
Ben Margot/AP

A new NAACP Legal Defense Fund report outlines three strategies to offset the effects of implicit bias.

Several years ago, Jason Okonofua, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted an experiment on K-12 teachers. Two sets of teachers were given records about misbehavior from a student, but one group thought they were reading about a student with a stereotypically black name (Darnell or Deshawn), and the other group thought the student in question had a stereotypically white name (Greg or Jake). The teachers who read about Darnell or Deshawn expressed a desire to punish him more severely, were more likely to anticipate that he would be suspended in the future, and were more likely to believe he was a “troublemaker.”

“There’s a direct path between a student’s race and how severely the teacher will discipline them,” said Okonofua. This is not because black students have higher rates of misconduct than other students, but because—as Okonofua’s experiment suggests—they are disproportionately disciplined, particularly for more subjective offenses such as “disruptive behavior” or “disrespecting a teacher.” It’s also not because teachers come into the classroom intending to treat students of color differently than white students.

The discrepancy is thought to be largely due to what psychologists call implicit bias—subtle, subconscious prejudices that are absorbed from the culture or media, and that influence our behavior even if we consciously reject racist or bigoted beliefs and ideas. The portrayal of African Americans as aggressive and hostile—as “troublemakers”—is a particularly salient trope. In a new report published by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), Okonofua and his co-author, LDF Senior Counsel Ajmel Quereshi, outline proven ways to combat this bias.

Department of Education statistics show that black children are almost four times as likely to be suspended from school as white children, and are almost twice as likely to be expelled. The pattern starts before kindergarten even begins: Black toddlers are 3.6 times as likely to be suspended as their white peers. Even black teachers are not immune from the effects of implicit bias: Indeed, black educators can be even harsher.

A surge in zero-tolerance student discipline policies in recent decades and the growing number of law enforcement officials in schools (in the form of SROs, or school resource officers) has exacerbated this situation. A rise in arrests and referrals to juvenile court also increase the likelihood that black children will embark on a path to prison—dubbed the “school-to-prison pipeline.” The ramifications are clear: While people of color make up 37 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise 67 percent of the prison population.

The obvious solution would seem to be to train implicit bias out of teachers. But that’s a tall order: Researchers are beginning to understand that it’s not possible to measure these unconscious biases in someone and then “de-bias” them. As such, the three interventions described in the report work by offsetting the effects of implicit bias, rather than attempting to remove the bias itself. They do so by working to create a relationship of trust and goodwill between teacher and student.

Because many students interpret critical feedback as proof that a teacher is biased against them, the first intervention prompts teachers to give feedback that sets high standards but also reassures students that they can meet the standards. In one experiment, a group of students received a handwritten note from their teacher attached to their assignment that said, “I’m giving you these comments so you’ll have feedback on your paper.” A second group’s note said, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them.” Only 17 percent of the first group revised their essay, but 72 percent of those who received the second note did. The biggest increase in who revised the paper was among black students who previously had reported the lowest rates of trust in their teachers.

In the second intervention, middle-school students send reassuring letters to elementary school kids about their future teachers. Researchers had seventh graders, for instance, tell incoming sixth graders not to worry—that “the teachers have your back.” The report notes that “the intervention was particularly important to black students, who reported lower rates of trust in the new school and feared teachers would give them negative feedback because of negative racial stereotypes.”

Okonofua and colleagues from Stanford University developed the third strategy, dubbed the “empathic mindset” intervention. To test the strategy, Okonofua assigned one group of teachers in several middle schools reading material and exercises on the importance of valuing students’ perspectives and how misbehavior is an opportunity to help students grow and learn. Another group of teachers—the control group—read materials and did exercises on incorporating technology in the classroom. At the end of the school year, the students with teachers who had engaged with the materials on empathy were 50 percent less likely to be suspended.

Okonofua has received funding from Google to bring the empathic mindset strategy to schools across the country. This year, he’s working with over 100 schools that serve 250,000 students, and next year he’ll double that.

But these three strategies aren’t enough, Okonofua and Quereshi stress: Schools must also limit the presence of SROs and stem suspensions and expulsions for subjective offenses. “We have to challenge the policies and procedures that allow kids to be disproportionately disciplined in the first place,” said Quereshi.

There are policies that attempt to eliminate suspensions for discretionary offenses—such as restorative justice, in which students talk through their transgressions and make amends instead of receiving detention, suspension, or worse. Critics of these policies say that they undermine teacher control and lead to chaotic classrooms that ultimately hurt better-behaved students. Yet such policies do not bar teachers from suspending students for behavior that warrants it, such as drugs or physical violence, and Okonofua said that his strategies address the critics’ concerns. If a school district no longer allows a teacher to suspend students for minor infractions, for instance, they then need new tools to deal with misbehavior.

“Our interventions give teachers more agency,” said Okonofua. “They can have conversations after class or after school to find out the root cause of the misbehavior and improve the student-teacher relationship.”

The researchers’ strategies also help teachers in ways that go beyond merely correcting for the effects of implicit bias, Quereshi observed. When students see their teacher acting differently toward different students, it creates a toxic environment. “The teacher feels frustrated, and it makes them less likely to find the job enjoyable,” he said. “We’re seeking to repair the student-teacher relationship for their benefit as well.”

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