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Uprooting Systemic Bias in Schools

Exploring data, asking questions, and finding patterns can help school leaders promote constructive discussions about equity

November 1, 2019
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Teachers make on-the-spot decisions every day — whom to call on to answer a question, when to ask a student to redo an assignment, what homework to assign. But each of those decisions, as research demonstrates, may be tinged with unconscious bias, particularly around issues of race. 

Unconscious racial bias, as defined in a new book by education leaders Tracey Benson and Sarah Fiarman, runs below the surface as a set of “learned beliefs, attitudes, and stereotypes about a particular race that results in harmful or preferential treatment of members of that race.” Unconscious bias eats away at the fabric of a school’s community and negatively affects the lives of students, as Benson and Fiarman report.

Their book — Unconscious Bias in Schools: A Developmental Approach to Exploring Race and Racism — draws on the authors' own experiences as students, educators, and administrators. Benson, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, and Fiarman, director of leadership development at EL Education, explore how schools can uncover the ways in which unconscious bias operates in their buildings.

Among other things, the book offers a roadmap for using data to drive this work. Administrators can:
•    Learn to structure a data-driven exploration of their school’s existing systems 
•    Devise questions for the community to answer collaboratively in order to change underlying systemic biases
•    Provide structure and support for difficult conversations


Data and Inquiry

Begin with the assumption that bias, in one shape or another, exists. In environments where conversations about race may be difficult to begin, hard facts and statistics about student experience are a great entry point. Start with a question, informed by an obvious pattern in existing school data (test scores, suspension rates, etc). Then, find ways in which teachers can go deeper into this inquiry and consider their daily practice. Are there questions or prompts they can ask themselves? Are there opportunities for them to observe one another? “Ultimately, the goal is that every staff member incorporates alertness to racial equity into their work every day,” write Benson and Fiarman. This process means that solutions may not be readily available; uncovering bias is iterative and takes time and practice, they write. 

The book offers several ways to get started, including this strategy:

  • Relationship Audit: Establish whether all students have a good relationship with an adult. Have staff go through all the names of students in the school and make note of who feels like they have a connection or have had a meaningful interaction with each student. Which students have the most connections or meaningful interactions with staff? The least? Are there any patterns?
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Unconscious bias eats away at the fabric of a school’s community and negatively affects the lives of students. An exploration of data patterns can be a good starting point for naming and uprooting bias.

Frame Patterns as Systemic, Not Personal

Once data has been gathered, administrators need to work with staff members to inform policy. This process can be a touchy one, as educators may feel that they are personally being accused of racism. It is important to frame problems as ones that stem from the system itself, rather than individuals. 

Benson and Fiarman offer many ways to change the conversational framing. For example, instead of talking about the performance of one group of students as opposed to other groups of students, educators can talk about how their school is more effectively reaching one group than another. 

Think about how the language makes a difference in the call to action. The idea is not to place a sense of individual blame on teachers or students, but to invoke a school community that can respond collectively to implement changes.

Have the Difficult Conversation

Both Benson and Fiarman have spent time in learning environments where professionals are hesitant to think critically about themselves. To ensure growth and engagement, consider the following:

  • Discussion protocols can ensure all voices have a chance to speak and address issues.
  • A task force can continue the conversations in more informal settings. Such a group could put together reading lists and ensure the integration of self-examination into daily practice.
  • Working to uncover bias is emotionally taxing. Make sure staff take care of themselves emotionally and that the work does not fall only on the shoulders of teachers of color.
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Key Takeaways
  • Unconscious racial bias is not an intentional thought process. It is likely the work of years of engrained, systemic thought, rather than the result of surface-level views held by an individual.
  • Approach the work knowing it will take time and patience to uncover these biases.
  • Data comes in many forms and from many sources. Sometimes, it will be difficult to receive.
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Diversity and Inclusion K-12 School Leadership