Diversity Highlights

By Nicholas Gallivan, Graduate Diversity Coordinator, ngallivan@ksu.edu

October 2020:
"Teachers are People Too"

At a time when cultural competence and race consciousness is more important than ever, self-reflection is imperative. As each tragedy strikes and the as cries for change magnify, it is crucial for each and every one of us to ask ourselves, “how have I contributed what has transpired?” On its face, this question may seem silly, as you have probably never played a direct role in any of the racially based tragedies or incidents that have occurred. However, as we have learned, anti-racist work requires that we exercise humility to discover within ourselves A) how we fit into the power structures of racism, and B) how we can wield the social power we each hold to dismantle these racist structures around us.

One opportunity to exercise this humility surfaced earlier this year when researchers from Princeton and Tufts Universities published research with potentially eye-opening findings: teachers are just as likely as non-teachers to have racial biases. In this peer-reviewed study titled “Teachers Are People Too,” researchers analyzed nearly 70,000 teachers’ archived responses to the self-administered Implicit Association Test (IAT). This test, a classic tool used within Social Psychology, measures how quickly and accurately participants pair White and Black faces with positive and negative words to assess both explicit and implicit bias toward either group. In their analyses, the researchers found that 77.0% percent of teachers demonstrated implicit bias toward Black faces, compared to 77.1% of non-teachers; furthermore, 30.3% of teachers showed explicit bias, compared to 30.4% of non-teachers. To test the replicability of these results, the researchers then analyzed archived IAT data another national poll. Although the demographic make-up of the second sample was different from the original sample, the findings of the first study were upheld.

To some, these findings may be surprising. Teachers, perhaps stereotypically, are commonly regarded as vessels of enlightenment and social change. Most of us have probably at least heard of Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers, and most of us probably hold at least one of our former’s teachers close within our hearts for the transformative work they helped initiate within ourselves. The researchers, however, were not surprised by these results. Jordan Starck, one of the authors of the study, explained, “Our schools are a microcosm of society. Given what we know of how pervasive bias is, ... I didn't suspect that either the selection process [of who becomes a teacher] or being in school [with children of different races] would be strong enough to curb that pervasive bias." Furthermore, he conceived “Teachers are probably more well-intentioned than the general population, but they still have the same bias levels.” And when you think about it, these notions make sense. The selection of one’s work, along with the setting of that work – two potential buffers of racial bias – only go so far when you consider the dynamic nature of human social development. Social learning theory (Bandura, 1977) posits that behaviors, and the attitudes behind those behaviors, are learned through observing those around us. Typically, this socialization occurs during our young, formative years when we interact with the influential people in our lives, usually our parents and guardians. We observe them express certain sentiments–both implicitly and explicitly–about people who are different from us; consequently, we naturally encode those sentiments, incorporating them into both our worldview (i.e., our attitudes) and how we operate in the world around us (i.e., our behaviors). Although these sentiments may have been passed on to us some decades ago, their foundational nature makes it difficult for us to distance ourselves from them, let alone completely change them.

As Starck has vehemently expressed, these findings were not meant to be used as criticism against teachers or the teaching profession; rather, he hopes these conclusions act as a call to action. This call to action has never been more crucial, especially given what we know about the consequences of biases inside the classroom, especially on student outcomes. For example, previous research has shown that Black students are less likely to be placed in gifted programs and are more likely to receive exclusionary punishment from their White teachers; furthermore, White teachers have shown to have considerably lower expectations for Black students, potentially affecting their outcomes beyond school. As a result, various literal and figurative hurdles are placed in front of Black students, impeding their current and future capacity for success. Knowing the nature of these hurdles and their outcomes, and considering the real-life implications they hold, improvements are essential.

So, what kind of actions can be taken to assist teachers in overcoming their implicit and explicit biases? Starck believes that “this isn’t a battle for teachers to fight themselves.” Instead, he and his team of researchers believe that school leaders are the key to this initiative. Specifically, they believe administrators should implement in-depth professional development trainings that help teachers address their social biases, and then implement policies which prevent these biases from harming students any further. Furthermore, Tracey Benson, an author and researcher of biases within schools, suggests that school leaders dive into their student data (e.g., test score, attendance and dropout rates, discipline records, and advanced course enrollment) with a racial lens to help discover where inequities lie and what policies can be developed. Given the current national and international dialogue on race and racism, Benson believes “now is the perfect opportunity – a large part of America is waking up finally.”

The findings and implications of the “Teachers Are People Too” study indicate action is crucial; however, how willing and able do teachers feel they are to begin enacting these changes? In a recent survey, researchers at Education Week polled teachers on a number of issues regarding bias, anti-racism, and equity in schools. Insightfully, respondents answered a number of questions in Spring 2020—before the protests for racial equality and Black Lives Matter began – and again in late August. When it comes to equity and anti-racist teaching, 63% of respondents reported feeling that schools were effective at bridging equity gaps before the protests for racial equality; however, respondents’ attitudes dropped to 59% in the August assessment. Furthermore, white educators (66%) were much more likely than non-white educators (49%) to believe schools had been successful in addressing equity in the Spring; however, by August, these attitudes among white teachers (60%) had dropped, while nonwhite educators’ opinions had risen (55%). And interestingly enough, most teachers (84%) were at least somewhat willing to support the implementation of anti-racist curriculum, but only 14% of respondents reported having the professional development and resources necessary to employ an anti-racist curriculum. Although the researchers made no note regarding the significance of the changes in attitudes discussed above, these findings are insightful. After the protests for racial equality and BLM, white teachers’ confidence in schools’ ability to bridge equity gaps had decreased, while nonwhite teachers’ confidence had increased. Furthermore, although a large majority of teachers support anti-racist education, a vast minority are confident in their ability to implement this curriculum.

Speculation of these survey findings were not provided; however, I will leave you with a few questions about the collection of results and concepts discussed above. Besides professional development trainings, how can schools begin tackling issues regarding racial biases? Does academia have a role to play in this intervention? And if so, how? What explanations can you conceive regarding the discrepancies discovered in the Education Week survey data? Furthermore, how do you imagine pervasiveness of these discussions surround race and racism has affected teachers’ attitudes surveyed in the Education Week study?


Diversity Initiative

Pedro Espinoza
Diversity Point Person

Nicholas Gallivan
Graduate Diversity Coordinator