The systemic oppression of Black men and women throughout U.S. history has resulted in persistent unequal access to opportunity.
Recent police killings of Black Americans have increased awareness of these disparities and sparked a nationwide conversation about how individuals’ unconscious racial biases contribute to inequality.
Some leaders have responded by endorsing policies that attempt to reduce the impacts of these “implicit” biases. Such policies include, for example, mandating that police, healthcare workers and judges receive training to reflect on how their own racial prejudices might affect their work. Many leaders in education have similarly called for action to address the biases of those working in schools across the country.
In a study published in July, we found suggestive evidence supporting the need to address bias in the classroom. Using nationwide data from the Stanford Education Data Archive, the Civil Rights Data Collection and Project Implicit’s white-Black implicit association test (IAT), we examined teachers’ racial biases and Black-white educational disparities. Our results reveal larger disparities in test achievement and suspension rates between Black and white youth in counties where teachers hold stronger pro-white/anti-Black biases, measured using the white-Black IAT.
Notably, these biases are implicit because the IAT assesses individuals’ automatic associations of white and Black people with certain attitudes using high-speed computerized tasks. With this data, we also find that biases vary by race and context.
White teachers have significantly stronger pro-white/anti-Black implicit biases than Black teachers, and, fortunately, anti-Black biases are weaker among teachers who work in counties serving more Black students.
We cannot say, based on this data, that bias causes white-Black educational disparities, but our study is one of the first in the United States to measure the relationship between teachers’ implicit racial biases and several key measures of student success.
Related: Teachers go to school on racial bias
Researchers have long hypothesized that teachers’ unconscious attitudes and prejudices may limit learning and degrade the educational experiences of Black youth. For example, these biases may affect teachers’ demeanor and warmth toward Black students and their families. Teachers’ racial views may also unknowingly influence their perceptions of students’ effort and behavior, or shift the level and quality of feedback provided on student assignments.
“A more diverse workforce in districts at all levels can challenge the structural forces that contribute to the unconscious prejudices of those already working in schools.”
What is clear from our work is that educators in all contexts need to reckon with the biases they bring into the classroom. We find that teachers in the typical county hold moderate implicit pro-white/anti-Black biases. Only in seven counties out of 764 did teachers, on average, possess “little or no” pro-white/anti-Black bias.
What is less clear, however, is how policymakers should address teachers’ biases and the consequences of these biases in schools. Research in psychology suggests that, though some programs demonstrate promise in changing individuals’ unconscious cognition, the impacts of these programs are small, do not necessarily persist over time and seldomly lead to shifts in behaviors.
Some scholars argue that individuals’ implicit racial biases are shaped by the omnipresent specter of structural racism in society more broadly. In education, this indicates that the potential benefits of teaching teachers to acknowledge and monitor their own unconscious prejudices may be diminished as long as they continue to work and live in a society where Black people are marginalized through policies that disproportionately disadvantage them (e.g., the weakening of voter protection laws and mass incarceration).
Ultimately, the pro-white/anti-Black biases that reflect these systems may continue to seep into educators’ day-to-day actions in classrooms.
School and district leaders should, therefore, take additional steps beyond trainings to address pro-white/anti-Black biases in classrooms. As noted above, Black teachers (and teachers of color more broadly) exhibit weaker pro-white/anti-Black implicit racial biases.
This finding — in addition to an extensive body of work showing positive effects of same-race teachers for students of color — supports growing efforts to attract and retain teachers and principals of color. But the benefits of hiring more Black educators and administrators extend well beyond directly reducing pro-white/anti-Black biases in schools
In too many schools, people of color are hired to fill the lowest-wage jobs — teaching assistantships, office staff and custodial roles. These hiring practices reinforce racial hierarchies to students and other staff.
A more diverse workforce in districts at all levels can challenge the structural forces that contribute to the unconscious prejudices of those already working in schools.
Similarly, embracing a more diverse and inclusive curriculum that highlights the history and culture of Black people in the United States may not just increase in-school engagement among Black youth — it may also challenge the latent cultural assumptions held by white teachers in classrooms teaching these Black youth.
Other educational policies can challenge the structural forces directly contributing to racial biases in schools, such as reforming school discipline, equity-focused school finance reform and school integration. But, ultimately, in-school efforts such as addressing teachers’ unconscious prejudices by themselves are unlikely to remedy stubborn disparities between Black and white youth.
Like nearly all education reforms before it, the lasting success of interventions such as implicit bias training will depend on an accompanying structural change to the systems that marginalize Black people inside and outside of schools.
With racial inequality at the forefront of our national dialogue, it may finally be time for the rest of us to reflect on our own biases and tendency to burden schools with solving societal woes — and take on the responsibility of pushing for policies outside of education that allow educational reforms to succeed.
This story about implicit bias was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Mark J. Chin is a doctoral candidate in education policy and program evaluation at Harvard University.
Virginia Lovison is a doctoral student in education policy and program evaluation at Harvard University.
Tasminda Dhaliwal is a doctoral candidate in the urban education policy program at the University of Southern California.
David Quinn is an assistant professor of education in the K-12 education policy concentration at the USC Rossier School of Education.