Confronting Implicit Bias: Promoting Equity in Education

Children in classroom sit on floor raising hands.

Implicit biases in education are subconscious beliefs or attitudes that influence teachers’ and administrators’ expectations of students’ performance. David Goobler, who runs a website for college instructors to share teaching strategies, says although most teachers understand implicit biases exist, they tend to think these biases affect other teachers.

Educators may be inclined to believe they don’t hold implicit biases because an implicit bias is a passively formed idea, often based largely on stereotypes. In fact, implicit biases generally run contrary to people’s conscious values and beliefs. But these biases occur universally, and they are shaped by everything from the way we grow up to the shows we watch on television.

Although implicit biases may be inevitable, that does not mean they’re not damaging. In fact, the American Bar Association has found these biases lead to discriminatory educational practices. When implicit biases influence decisions in the classroom—where 84 percent of teachers are white—minority and marginalized students suffer.

However, by confronting implicit bias in education, teachers and educational leaders can create opportunities and change classrooms, districts, and state-wide educational systems to better support students.

Implications of Implicit Bias in Learning

Students who experience the effects of stereotyping and implicit bias in education are at risk of consequences such as lower graduation rates and lower college enrollment. Two equally negative and unfortunately prevalent biases in education can be seen in the contrasting stereotypes of Asian American and Black/African American students.

The Myth of “Positive” Stereotypes

A “positive” stereotype is any kind of stereotype that seemingly attributes something good to a group of people. Examples of so-called positive stereotypes are: Italians are excellent cooks, gay men are stylish, and women are natural nurturers. But stereotyping, no matter the content, wrongly suggests we know something about an individual based on our opinions about the group to which we think they belong.

On television, Asian Americans are often portrayed as “the model minority”—for example, high-achieving students who always go on to attend top universities. But this stereotype has more to do with the lack of Asian Americans represented on TV (as of 2017, just over 6 percent of TV shows featured a series regular of Asian descent) than reality. A Washington state study found students with Southeast Asian backgrounds were actually earning bachelor’s degrees at rates below the national average.

The model minority stereotype falsely lumps a diverse group of individual students into one inaccurate category. When teachers see a stereotype instead of a student, they can fail to recognize serious problems—such as poverty, isolation, and the pressure to excel.

Negative Stereotypes

Aaron Kay, a psychologist at Duke University, explains that not only are positive stereotypes harmful in and of themselves, they’re also frequently tied to negative stereotypes. Kay warns that statements such as “black students are good at sports” can be linked to academic biases faced by black students.

Disproportionately high suspensions of black students indicate the persistence of negative stereotypes and point to the prevalence of implicit bias in education. A 2017 study conducted by the Brookings Institute found, across the country, black students are suspended at three times the rate of their white peers.

The study concluded that when it comes to implementing school rules, racial bias and stereotyping cannot be discounted. According to Brookings, by the time black students reach middle school, they are more likely than Asian and white students to experience unfair treatment.

Reporting from the New York Times, focusing on Minnesota’s treatment of students of color, found rampant instances of double standards for students, beginning as early as elementary school. According to a former Minnneapolis superintendent, white students who acted out in class were more likely to be described as “high strung” or “having a hard day,” while black students acting out in similar ways were frequently described as “destructive” or “violent.” In one elementary school, a black second-grader was suspended for poking a classmate with a pencil, while a white second-grader threw a rock at a classmate and was assigned in-school chores.

As the American Bar Association found, seeing certain students as “violent” versus “high strung” when engaging in similar behavior leads to discriminatory treatment. One study that looked at racial disparities in discipline across grades three to eight found that higher rates of suspension for black students correlated to black-white achievement gaps. These gaps include lower test scores for elementary and middle school students, and as students continue through school, suspensions are linked to lower graduation rates.

Additionally, research from the National Association of School Psychologists shows suspensions do nothing to improve student behavior. Disproportionate suspensions of minority students harm them by taking away their access to education, and they fuel negative academic stereotypes.

What All Stereotypes Have in Common

Whatever the stereotype, viewing students as a group instead of as individuals leaves them at risk for not getting the support they need to learn. By confronting implicit biases in education, teachers can create culturally responsive classrooms that promote equitable learning environments.

How Teachers Can Promote Equity in Education

When schools and teachers acknowledge implicit biases in education, opportunities arise to change the systems—from the classroom, to the district, to the state level—that haven’t been supporting students.

A network to train and retain science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers, 100Kin10, offers one example of how confronting bias leads to meaningful systemic change. Low-income school districts, which have disproportionately more black and Hispanic students than high-income districts, lag in STEM offerings. To address this, 100Kin10 is committed to working with educational leaders, teachers, and networks across the country to add 100,000 diverse STEM teachers who will promote students’ identities as STEM learners and redress inequities for marginalized students.

Programs such as 100Kin10 aims at systemic change. In addition, any teacher can do five key things to make space for equity in the classroom.

5 Ways to Make the Classroom Equitable

  1. Confront your own biases:
    Everyone has implicit biases, and though it can be painful to recognize these biases, doing so is the only way to stop them. For example, students with single parents are often stereotyped as having behavioral problems, but research from the American Psychological Association shows that when teachers create welcoming, inclusive spaces, as opposed to judgmental ones, they can help students from single-parent homes thrive.

  2. Implement an inclusive curriculum:
    Victoria Forrester, a veteran teacher, administrator, and professor at Mills College in the educational leadership program, suggests that teachers and schools need to implement inclusive curricula to recognize marginalized students and their histories and to encourage tolerance for all students. Dr. Forrester looks at the lack of LGBTQ+ curricula as one example of implicit bias. If teachers don’t understand LGBTQ+ history, then they can unknowingly project their biases and misconceptions onto students. But, Dr. Forrester says, “Through comprehensive training about this culture and community, educators can broaden their viewpoints, challenge their belief systems, and guide their students down the path of acceptance, inclusion, and pride.”

  3. Use asset-based thinking:
    For teachers, implicit biases can often lead to fixed mindsets and deficit-based thinking. Deficit-based thinking treats students’ challenges as problems to be “fixed,” and fixed-mindset thinking focuses on these problems rather than on generating solutions. An asset-based mindset instead shifts the paradigm to look for strategies that help students learn.

  4. Connect with students individually:
    Research from the American Bar Association suggests that forming new associations is the best way to change implicit biases. Not only may connecting with students help teachers reshape preconceived notions, but various studies show strong student-teacher relationships lead to increased academic achievement and more motivated students as well.

  5. Enroll in a teacher preparation program:
    The National Education Association (NEA) has found new educators and working educators who are supported by teacher preparation programs report higher levels of success in their classrooms.

Confronting Implicit Bias in Education with Leadership

Educational leadership programs contribute to classroom success by training teachers in ways to confront biases through strategies such as implementing diverse curricula, using asset-based thinking, and connecting with students.

In Mills College’s online Master of Educational Leadership program, students take classes that focus on inclusive curriculum development, ethical classroom models, and trauma in marginalized student populations through the lens of leadership. The Master of Educational Leadership prepares educators to design twenty-first century learning environments that confront implicit bias in education to support increasingly diverse student populations.

If you are interested in creating inclusive classrooms through leadership models that confront bias and promote equity, learn more about Mills College’s online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership program.

Leadership is about making change—Learn more about our reduced tuition