“He can’t do it. It’s just too hard for him.”
This sentiment—and others just like it—are in use constantly, all over the country, every day. A teacher at Olympic View Elementary School, in Federal Way, WA, is struggling with using the grade-level Engage NY lessons. The teacher just knows that this curriculum is a good one, but not for her students. Her students need something a little easier; something that’s more on their level. Another teacher in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District is attempting what he calls “the impossible.” He’s been tasked with rolling out the new ELA curriculum in his 9th-grade English I classes. He cannot understand why the administration selected such a rigorous curriculum. Surely they didn’t get input from the actual teachers who see how bad the kids struggle with these texts.
These scenarios can be explained best by the research conducted by TNTP in The Opportunity Myth. The study found that 82% of teachers, just like the ones mentioned above, believed in their state’s standards. However, only 44% of them believed that the standards were good for “their” students. Too many teachers just don’t believe in children. Period.
Why haven’t we changed this?
The Opportunity Myth was published over three years ago. Even before that, we knew how detrimental low expectations were to a child’s future performance. Low expectations are prevalent across low-performing districts for a reason. They don’t happen by accident, and they aren’t going to just go away. The expectations held by teachers in regards to what their students can and cannot do are fueled by deeply held beliefs. These beliefs have been reinforced and supported by racist education and education adjacent systems for decades. These beliefs manifest themselves in various forms. The most common manifestation is unconscious or implicit bias.
Bias is defined as an inclination of temperament or outlook. The thing about biases is that they are automatic processes made by our brains. Our brains, in an effort to make sense of situations, draw on what we know, or believe to be true, about a thing, a person, or a group of people. Eliminating bias is not the goal because, quite frankly, it’s rather impossible. Instead, the goal is to slow down the automaticity, to create the habit of pausing and thinking about the feelings that were automatically generated, before speaking or acting.
Bias affects all of us; as previously stated, it’s an automatic process. However, an important note on the increased importance of unpacking biases for white leaders must be made. A recent study found that 75% of white Americans have entirely white social networks—an experience that results in exaggerated perceptions of difference as well as fear and threat. Expanding one’s knowledge of other cultures is one way to begin to break down or change current stereotypes held, which in turn can lead to mitigating bias.
Until we begin to seriously unpack biases, we will not see a change in the expectation levels teachers hold for our most marginalized students.
What can leaders really do?
If you were to go on Google and search “how to mitigate implicit bias,” you’d get tons of hits for available programs and training that you could sign up for. I am sure that some of those trainings would be extremely beneficial for you or your school/district/system.
However, there is a more accessible approach to mitigation and it starts with you! A large part of equity work requires vulnerability. As a leader, you have to model what vulnerability looks/sounds/feels like. In regards to biases, you have to first unpack your own. You can use free tools like the Implicit Association Test from Harvard, or you can just pay attention to how you feel. You can analyze some recent decisions you’ve made and whittle them down to the “what” and “why” of going in the direction you did. Verywellmind, a mental health resource organization, also shares six ways to reduce your own bias that are worth reading. There is no one way to unpack your biases; as long as you are promoting self-awareness, you are on the right track.
After you’ve begun to unpack your own biases, you are ready to require that of others. It is important to note that accepting non-closure is required. You will not sit down one day to begin this work and get up in a few hours with a completed list. This will be ongoing and will hopefully transform into a new way of thinking as opposed to an added “thing to do.” The needs of the students you serve will demand that you do this work urgently. This will mean that even before you’ve arrived, you will be responsible for changing mindsets and practices in others.
Unpacking your biases is the first step. Other bite-sized, tangible steps you can take with your staff are listed below:
- Name it – make the impacts of implicit bias explicitly clear for your staff. Use the disproportionality data, which most likely exists for your school/district, that shows which group of students are outperforming other groups. Talk about why that is. Call out the low expectations when you hear them. Highlight the danger of low expectations and use the data to show their real life impact (i.e., teachers that believe that students “can’t do” never expose them to grade-level content or tasks).
- Set clear expectations – Show your staff that you are making bias mitigation a priority. Set reasonable non-negotiables (i.e., requiring that all staff explore the biases they hold through the use of the self-assessment, norm on common terms, expect that all staff hold high expectations for students, as demonstrated by their instructional actions, etc.).
- Prioritize space and time to talk about it – promoting dialogue is crucial. Implicit or unconscious bias is uncomfortable and likely will not be the chosen topic around the staff lounge. Carving out the time and space necessary for ongoing discussions may be tough. What you have to consider is the alternative; that’s tougher. Find ways to include bias mitigation with your other topics (i.e., instructional topics, climate and culture topics, operational topics). There is a need for stand-alone conversations, but finding ways to integrate bias mitigation is powerful. Making the connections explicit will help your staff see the parallels and the far-reaching implications of this work.
- Pick a tool/resource and make it part of your process – there are so many tools/resources available to support mitigating bias. Selecting a tool that your school/district will use may be wise. Information overload can lead to individuals giving up too soon, especially when dealing with something that is already requiring them to be vulnerable (which is typically uncomfortable). One tool I like to use, to center my conversations, is the Anti-Racist Intersectional Frame from the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington, DC. This Frame provides shared definitions and provides a guiding approach for working to create a more equitable society.
- Be open to feedback – remember you are on this journey, too. Be open to feedback from staff and colleagues about this process and make adjustments as needed. As long as you hold the bar on your non-negotiables, changes to the process won’t be distractors.