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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Bias: Pathways to inequities
Finding solutions to confront bias in schools
By George Uduigwome and Keith Oliver Rojas | March | April 2022
“Bias is woven through culture like a silver cord woven through cloth. In some lights, it’s brightly visible. In others, it’s hard to distinguish. And your position relative to that glinting thread determines whether you see it at all.”
— Evelyn Carter, University of California, Los Angeles
The current COVID-19 pandemic continues to underscore the inequities suffered by historically underserved subgroups. The conversations in education circles revolve around learning loss, learning gaps, equity, engagement, biases, social justice and staffing. Our positions as Black school administrators place us in a vantage position to discuss the issue of biases as both practitioners and parents. For example, as administrators, we interact with procedural concerns or policies within our school communities daily. As minority parents, we are directly impacted by policies mostly predicated on biases.
We are interested in exploring the topic of bias in school systems. You might wonder, why focus on the issue of bias or discrimination? Why care? We care because we desire education for all and care about the students who are either underserved — or not served at all — because several barriers hinder them from participating in the opportunities that nurture their dreams and potential to the fullest extent possible. These lost opportunities are usually the casualties of flawed policies in education systems.
Bias is a human trait. Personal bias is an attitude toward an idea or concept. These biases could be implicit (i.e., an attitude that you may be unaware of) or explicit bias (i.e., attitude and belief you hold about a person or group on a conscious level). Bias is a prejudice for or against a person or group. The institutional bias construct highlights divergent paths: it entitles an ingroup while depriving certain social groups perceived as outgroups. Such systemic group-based inequities exist in almost all social institutions and groups (e.g., based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation) that experience inequities at the individual level are susceptible to institutional bias. Dimensions of institutional bias identified by social scientists include:
  • Depth (i.e., how deeply embedded)
  • Intentionality (i.e., how intentional)
  • Manifestation/observability/directionality (i.e., how overt or covert)
In the United States, the Justice Department has an agency, the Community Relations Service, responsible for helping resolve tensions arising from differences of race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and disability. As explained by the CRS in “Understanding Bias: A Resource Guide,” biases result from an unconscious human tendency to classify individuals through schemas, or “mental maps,” developed from life experiences. These schemas become templates used to navigate new encounters. When used to categorize people by age, gender, race or other criteria, they are called stereotypes. Implicit bias involves both implicit stereotypes and implicit attitudes. Stereotypes and attitudes are shaped by personal experiences and cultural exposure that leave a recorded imprint on our memory.
Historically, institutional bias is associated with slavery or Apartheid. It is when one group receives favorable treatment. Institutional bias is “discriminatory practices that occur at the institutional level… it goes beyond individual-level prejudice and discrimination” (Henry, P.J., 2010).
Social constructions such as shared social categorizations (i.e., process through which individuals are grouped based on social information) and collective forgetting or social amnesia (i.e., the process by which the attention received by cultural pieces decays over time) are institutional bias correlates. Henry (2010) observed that institutional bias is not necessarily the sum of discriminatory actions of prejudiced individuals. Instead, it can exist even in the absence of the mechanisms usually associated with individual bias.
The location of power and legitimacy play an essential role in identifying instructional bias and who is affected by it. Bias predicated on race is only one of several biases. Interestingly enough, racism is often represented as a binary that subscribes to the informal fallacy that one is either a racist or not. According to Tracey Benson and Sarah Fiarman (2019), this typically means well-intentioned White educators “spend all their effort ducking and dodging the racist label, and they miss opportunities to reduce the effects of racism on their students.”
The literature seems to suggest that the issue of racial biases in school systems is mostly teacher-student. However, it also plays out as teacher-teacher or teacher-parent. Collaboration is hindered when educators of color approach racism through a racist/non-racist binary lens and believe some White colleagues are incapable of growth. Finally, the binary mindset often presents good intentions and discriminatory behavior as mutually exclusive.
Implicit bias (also known as implicit social cognition) is influenced by attitudes and stereotypes based on people’s experiences. It affects how we act subconsciously, even if we renounce prejudices or stereotypes in our daily lives. Educators, like most other people, act in racially biased ways without realizing it. The literature reveals that even the on-the-spot decisions made by teachers such as whom to call on to answer a question and when to ask a student to redo an assignment may be tinged with unconscious bias, particularly around issues of race.
Following Benson and Fiarman (2019), unconscious racial bias 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.” Examples of unconscious bias include conformity bias, beauty bias, affinity bias, Halo Effect, Horns Effect, similarity bias, Contrast Effect, attribution bias and confirmation bias.
How do biases affect our students?
According to a recent study out of Harvard University, teachers’ implicit biases may result in educational inequities. The study provides quantitative evidence that teachers’ implicit biases may adversely impact student outcomes. After controlling for factors likely to influence test scores or discipline, the study found the following:
  • Teachers of color had lower pro-White/anti-Black bias levels than their White colleagues;
  • Black teachers had the lowest levels of anti-Black bias; and
  • Teachers with lower anti-Black bias tended to work in counties with more Black students.
  • Areas with stronger pro-White/anti-Black bias had more significant gaps between test scores and suspension rates for Black and White students.
Education scholars have hypothesized that implicit bias, or unconscious beliefs, may contribute to racial disparities in education. Examples include:
Biased evaluations of students’ academic performance. This has ramifications for educational attainment. For example, some standardized assessment tools/measures are known to be racially discriminatory. Teacher-designed assessments are also known to be tainted by a teacher’s biases.
Over-identification and under-identification of students for special education services. Black male students are over-identified under the emotional disturbance eligibility. Conversely, many students of Asian descent are under-identified even when it is evident that they are struggling academically. Current psychometrics, a science that measures mental capacities and processes, have not helped either.
Over-identification and under-identification of students for GATE and Advanced Placement Classes. According to a 2016 American Educational Research Association publication, Black and Latino students are less likely to be screened for gifted programs in public schools than White and Asian students. Conversely, Black students are three times more likely to be assigned to gifted services if they have a black teacher. Studies (e.g., “Inequities in Advanced Coursework: What’s driving them and what leaders can do;” Education Trust, 2020) also reveal that Black students are less likely to be placed in advanced math (middle school) or Advanced Placement (high school) classes even though Black and Latino students are successful in advanced courses when given the opportunity.
Disproportionality in discipline referrals. Black children receive more out-of-school suspensions than their White peers. Black students are also three times more likely to be suspended than their White peers, and expelled students are three times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system (school-to-prison pipeline). Trends indicate school discipline for Blacks has a 7.6 percent suspension rate compared to the 2.6 percent for all students in elementary schools.
In “Does Seeing Faces of Young Black Boys Facilitate the Identification of Threatening Stimuli?” Todd, Thiem and Neel (2016) reported that White participants perceived young Black boys (5-year-olds) as aggressive, hostile and violent. The study also observed that pervasive stereotypes associating Black men with violence and criminality could result in implicit cognitive biases, including misidentifying harmless objects as weapons.
School-to-prison pipeline. Data has long shown that students from marginalized groups are at a greater risk of being drawn into the school-to-prison pipeline. For example, the suspension and expulsion rates for Black and Hispanic students are much higher than those for White students. Although Black students constitute 16 percent of student enrollment, they account for 27 percent of the referrals to law enforcement and 31 percent subjected to a school-related arrest. Further, over 70 percent of students referred to law enforcement agencies for school-related incidents are Black or Latino.
Funding disparities. Education funding inequities continue to be debated, challenged and litigated. Negative coefficients were reported for Black/White total expenditures in the study by Sosina and Weathers (2019). This means that as Black/White segregation increases, spending shifts away from the average Black student’s district relative to the average White student’s. A recent EdBuild report found that predominantly White school districts receive $23 billion more funding than school districts that mainly serve students of color. As a broad generalization, low-income and minority students receive fewer fiscal and educational resources.
Racially skewed hiring practices. According to education advocacy and research nonprofit EdTrust West, in 2018-19, more than 60 percent of teachers in California’s K-12 public schools were White while fewer than 4 percent were Black. Further, 80 percent of Black elementary school students are taught by teachers who are not the same race. The predominantly White teacher workforce does not reflect the more diverse student population, and the racial difference increases the likelihood of intentionally or unintentionally criminalizing certain culturally-referenced behaviors.
Loss of self-esteem and goal reduction or diminished expectations. Social psychologists believe that students of color who accept the widely held view that society is fair may conclude that their racial group does not succeed because it is inferior. Several studies show that a teacher’s hidden biases can result in goal reduction or diminished expectations for students of color and those from under-resourced communities.
Health office biases. Studies in the area of social determinants of health and their effects on health outcomes report that patients can pick up on a health provider’s implicit bias. By implication, minority students referred to the health office can sense the implicit bias of the school nurse or health assistant and feel less inclined to engage deeply with care.
Examples of biased associations include the use of terms such as “hispanicus hystericus” to qualify Latinx patients with legitimate pain or emotional issues that were discounted or unaddressed, Black children treated as adults, or not being given the same compassion or level of care available to White children.
Addressing the elephant in the room calls for courageous leadership, intentionality and collaboration among all stakeholders.
Some practical steps
It is vital to confront structures that perpetuate biases in school systems. The literature emphasizes the importance of a calibrating approach to help educators deconstruct, reconstruct and recreate their multicultural practices. Districts like the Palmdale School District have adopted a two-pronged implicit bias and cultural competency training approach. An effective intervention will result in long-term behavioral change. More districts have now adopted hiring practices that increase the diversity of teachers and school leaders and are more intentional about implicit bias training.
A study by Okonofua, Perez and Darling-Hammond (2020) discusses how structural shifts can mitigate bias and strategically integrate intervention programs to “debias” a school. School leaders can start by questioning their own biases, understanding common stumbling blocks, then setting a manageable goal. The school staff can then be invited to do the same. The calibration process to change underlying systemic biases will involve auditing the school’s academic and discipline records (e.g., test scores, suspension rates) and campus relationships (i.e., ascertaining the relationships between students and school personnel).
For the relationship audit, Benson and Fiarman suggested having staff go through all the names of students in the school and note who feels they have a sense of connection or meaningful interaction with each student. They will look for patterns and frame the patterns as systemic rather than personal. Finally, the conversational framing will be more beneficial if predicated on an asset-based standpoint.
The CRS recommends using a series of Implicit Association Tests to measure attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report. IATs measure associations that either reinforce or contradict conscious beliefs. However, the CRS cautions that, although IATs can be a useful tool in identifying potential biases, attitudes and associations, they will not overcome the impact of biases of the test taker.
Chen, Nimmo and Fraser (2009) proposed a framework to help teachers reflect and re-examine their practice. The self-study has four sections: self-awareness, physical environment, pedagogical environment and relationship with families and community. A critical analysis of each section helps teachers understand how their preconceived notions and implicit bias can interact with institutional structures to perpetuate prejudice and inequity. They can then re-examine practices, programs and policies against the backdrop of culturally responsive pedagogy while providing more equitable opportunities for their students to learn.
The team has to work collaboratively to reorient practice and inform policy. Since this involves generating questions for the community to answer, it is the responsibility of the leader to provide structure and support for the difficult conversations that are likely to arise. Such a foundation is crucial in creating and sustaining conditions conducive to learning through a sustained disequilibrium.
Some final thoughts
The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing Act (Government Code Sections 12900 through 12996) and its implementing regulations (California Code of Regulations, Title 2, Sections 11000 through 11141) prohibit discrimination and harassment based on actual or perceived ancestry, age, color, disability, genetic information, gender identity or expression, marital status, race, national origin, gender and so forth.
There is a tendency to misunderstand — and even criminalize — certain behaviors that are associated with outgroups. Therefore, discipline, instruction, assessments and placement psychometrics need to be more culturally sensitive. Concerning racially-skewed funding, a need-based approach will be more equitable. Hiring practices also need to consider students’ diverse cultural backgrounds.
Bias training should be incorporated into teacher preparation programs. This will attune teachers to their biases while equipping them with skills and tactics to address them. Further, the creation of an Access and Equity officer position ensures equity remains a priority. Among other things, the Access and Equity officer would be responsible for staff training and accountability.
Addressing the elephant in the room calls for courageous leadership, intentionality and collaboration among all stakeholders. It is important to note that different mechanisms may propel individual and institutional biases. Consequently, prejudice and bias reduction strategies designed for individual bias curtailment might not effectively address the personal biases responsible for group-based disparities. It will require a concerted effort by all stakeholders to ensure that the promissory note issued by the country to its citizens is equally meaningful and beneficial to all.
Benson, T.A. & Fiarman, S.E. (2019). Unconscious Bias in Schools: A developmental approach to exploring race and racism. Harvard Education Press.
Billing, M. (1985). Prejudice, categorization, and particularization: From a perceptual to a rhetorical approach. European Journal of Psychology. Vol. 15 (1).
Chen, D. W., Nimmo, J., & Fraser, H. (2009). Becoming a culturally responsive early childhood educator: A tool to support reflection by teachers embarking on the anti-bias journey. Multicultural Perspectives 11(2), 101-106.
“Data Snapshot: School Discipline.” Civil Rights Data Collection. U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, Mar. 2014.
Dhaliwal, T.K., Chin, M. J., Lovison, V.G. & Quinn, D.M. (2020). Bias in the Air: A Nationwide Exploration of Teachers’ Implicit Racial Attitudes, Aggregate Bias, and Student Outcomes. Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Henry, P. J. (2010). Institutional Bias. In J. F. Dovidio, M. Hewstone, P. Glick, & V. M. Esses (Eds.), Handbook of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination (426-440). London: SAGE. “It’s Time To Address The Role Of Implicit Bias Within Health Care Delivery,” Health Affairs Blog, January 15, 2020. DOI: 10.1377/hblog20200108.34515
Okonofua, J. A., Perez, A. D., & Darling-Hammond, S. (2020). When policy and psychology meet: Mitigating the consequences of bias in schools. Science advances, 6(42), eaba9479.
Patrick, K., Socol, A. & Morgan, I. (2020). Inequities in Advanced Coursework: What’s Driving Them and What Leaders Can Do. Education Trust.
Sosina, V.E. & Weathers, E.S. (2019). Pathways to Inequality: Between-District Segregation and Racial Disparities in School District Expenditures. Research Article.

Dr. George Uduigwome and Dr. Keith Oliver Rojas serve students in the Palmdale Unified School District.
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