Bias Isn’t Just A Police Problem, It’s A Preschool Problem

Even the most well-meaning teachers can harbor deep-seated biases, whether or not they know it. With this in mind, Walter Gilliam devised a remarkable–and quite deceptive–experiment. At a large, annual conference for pre-K teachers, Gilliam and his team recruited 135 teachers to view a few short videos which featured a black boy and girl, and a white boy and girl, and asked them to look for any “challenging behavior.” The deception was: there was no challenging behavior present. While the teachers watched the video, eye-scan technology measured the trajectory of their gaze. What Gilliam wanted to know was: when teachers expect bad behavior, who do they watch? “What we found was exactly what we expected, based on the rates at which children are expelled from preschool programs. Teachers looked more at the black children than the white children, and they specifically looked more at the African-American boy.” According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, black children are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended from preschool than white children. To put it another way, black children account for roughly 19 percent of all preschoolers, but nearly half of all preschool suspensions. One reason for this, Gilliam suggests, is that teachers spend more time focused on their black students, expecting bad behavior from them. “If you look for something in one place, that’s the only place you can typically find it.” Biases are natural, but they must be challenged. When teachers spend their time looking for trouble with specific children in mind, two things are bound to happen. First, trouble may be found where there is none, or behaviors that would normally be seen as minor disturbances will be blown out of proportion. Second, children other than the perceived “trouble causers” will end up going unnoticed. Teachers may miss potential signs of challenging behavior, or worse, children who are struggling could go unnoticed, causing them to fall behind.  If this kind of bias permeates the the world of preschool teachers, it is almost certain that it plays a role in a larger cultural context, where black boys and young men are disproportionately suspended and end up being funneled through America’s “school-to-prison” pipeline.  Read the full NPR article Here