As a teacher in an urban high school, I used to tell myself a lie every day. I told it as I led lessons on Catcher in the Rye, Night and Sula. I told it as I met with students after school and when I graded their homework. Every day I told myself I was doing what I could for every student and that I assumed they could all go on to be successful in college or career if they did what I asked of them. And every time I did, I lied to myself – and to all of my students.
What I am awakening to is that that lie is part of my unconscious bias.
Unconscious bias is a real phenomenon in all schools. It thrived in my practice as a teacher and principal even though I felt devoted to my students. It lives in me still, though I work constantly to examine it. It’s painful to admit, but I must. We all must.
As educators, we are sometimes unconvinced that every student can do the same work, hit the same targets — at least during our short watch. When we avoid addressing these low expectations, they have powerful consequences for how we teach, coach and advise, leading us to unknowingly assume the outcomes and eventualities for students based on race and class. Those assumptions become the core of structural racism, making our education system – and all of us in that system – complicit in systemic inequity.
There is tragic proof of how we fail students of color and students living in poverty. Students who live in poverty and are not reading proficiently by the third grade are 13 times more likely to miss graduation than their affluent peers. Black and Hispanic students who can’t read well by third grade are twice as likely to be unsuccessful in ninth. The gap between white and black students widens the longer students are in school.
Doing more of the same won’t stop these unconscionable trends. We must break the status quo, because even though you or I may not feel personally responsible for causing or upholding unconscious bias and systemic racism, we each hold the power to change it. That starts by opening our eyes to our own biases, and inviting those around us to do the same.
This is hard, uncomfortable work to engage in. There are times I’ve wanted to play it safe, to just listen to my instincts. But that ignores research-based solutions. If I think of bias as something only other people have, then I am closing myself off and failing students. I am unopen to new mindsets and approaches, and I am hurting the very students who have the most to gain.
But, when I face my own biases directly, I get new perspectives on old assumptions. One realization I’ve reached is that the phrase “achievement gap” misses the point, and that the problem sits entirely with us as educators. The gap is not in student performance; the gap is ours, and I’ve learned this the hard way. We have a gap in what we expect and ultimately what we provide as educators in all of our roles throughout the system.
We need to stay focused on the idea that all students can and should reach grade level standards. If we already know that many students – disproportionately students of color and those living in poverty – are not ready for the grade in which they find themselves, we must meet them where they are.
The good news is, there is research that tells us how to make these changes. The research challenges us to change mindsets and practices in ways that may not be easy initially, but it provides a path forward that we cannot afford to ignore.
For example, every day we give kids easy books, so they can read “at their level.” Yet, no research shows that leveled reading does enough, or works at all, to help kids advance toward grade-level mastery. The truth is kids need to hear big words and long stories. They need to see complex sentences and unfamiliar names. They need to learn of worlds they’ve never encountered and creatures they’ve never imagined. But we limit them. Consistently. Systematically.
Research also shows that teachers’ mathematical knowledge is significantly related to gains in students’ mathematics achievement. This suggests that with deep content knowledge, educators can teach at a deeper level through their explanations and interactions with students’ mathematical thinking. To commit to that, we need to buck assumptions that teaching the answers alone is good enough or all students can handle.
We need to teach students how to dive into the inner-workings of every puzzle, every time. That’s the mentality we need to bring into the classroom. If we use the research to start teaching in ways that presume all kids can, we’d change from unknowingly blaming them or limiting them and instead, we’d change us – we’d grow our practice.
I’m constantly learning how bias connects not just to pedagogy but how I move through the world. But here’s what I’ve learned unequivocally: We have to raise the standards of our work – across all roles in the education system – not for the students who are positioned to thrive regardless, but for the students who arrive in school not ready for their grade because of the inequitable world they inhabit. For these students, we must do the hard work and know the research to adapt our practices.
We each have to embrace the unfamiliar and the uncomfortable if we are to use our power to eradicate systemic bias in our schools. It’s on me, and it’s on each of us.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
Kate Gerson is managing partner of programs at UnboundEd, a nonprofit organization that gives educators the support they need to select, implement and adapt free, high-quality curriculum materials in pursuit of equity for all students.
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