Racial bias among preschool teachers is a problem, study says. Here’s what Colorado experts think should be done.

Some of Colorado’s early childhood leaders say findings from a new study on preschool teacher bias spotlight the need for a more diverse early childhood workforce and more training to combat the unconscious bias teachers of all races bring to the classroom.

Preschoolers play. (Photo by Dylan McCoy)
(Photo by Dylan McCoy)
(Photo by Dylan McCoy)

By Ann SchimkeChalkbeat  

Some of Colorado’s early childhood leaders say findings from a new study on preschool teacher bias spotlight the need for a more diverse early childhood workforce and more training to combat the unconscious bias teachers of all races bring to the classroom.

The study released last week by Yale researcher Walter Gilliam found that black and white preschool teachers expect boys, especially black boys, to act up in class, and watch them more closely for signs of challenging behavior.

It revealed how teachers’ underlying assumptions about race and gender affect their discipline decisions. The study follows on earlier research showing that young black boys are disproportionately expelled from preschools — a precursor to the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately impacts young black men.

The findings come at a time of intense national discussion about racial disparities in school discipline and in the midst of a debate in Colorado about how to reduce harsh discipline tactics during the preschool and early elementary school years.

Gilliam’s Findings
    A team led by Walter Gilliam conducted a study of 135 preschool teachers in which the teachers were asked to watch videos of four children — a black boy, a black girl, a white boy and a white girl. They were also asked to read a vignette that described a child’s challenging behavior, with the only difference being the name — Latoya, Emily, DeShawn or Jake.
  • Both black and white preschool teachers watched boys, especially black boys, more than girls of either race for signs of challenging behavior.
  • When asked directly which of the four children in the video required most of their attention, teachers of all races cited the black boy most often.
  • Black teachers rated challenging behavior as more severe than white teachers did when it came from black boys — suggesting that white teachers may have lower expectations for black boys.
  • When teachers learned about family stressors that might be contributing to a child’s challenging behavior, they rated the behavior as less severe, but only when they were of the same race as the child.

Last year, plans for legislation on the topic fizzled, but there’s a new push by a task force of state officials, advocates and at least one state-lawmaker to craft a bill for the 2017 session.

There’s been progress on other fronts, too. The state recently doubled the ranks of early childhood mental health consultants who help teachers better handle challenging behavior. Also, a Colorado team won a federal grant in August for a pilot project intended to help teachers understand what triggers challenging behavior and when biases come into play.

Erin Mewhinney, director of the Division of Early Care and Learning in the state human services department, also noted that the state Office of Early Childhood is commissioning a study that will look at the scope of preschool suspensions and expulsions in Colorado. Despite national studies showing major race-based disparities in early childhood discipline, state-specific data is scarce here.

Mewhinney said instead of simply trying to regulate early childhood suspensions and expulsions, the state has taken a more holistic approach, seeking input and buy-in from lots of groups.

Other leaders say more needs to be done on a consistent basis across the state.

“I would be hard-pressed to say that Colorado as a state has an action plan in place, but I think there are certain pockets of individuals who are very sensitive to this issue,” said Phil Strain, a University of Colorado Denver professor who heads the university’s Positive Early Learning Experiences Center.

He’s part of the team leading the federally funded pilot, called the Pyramid Equity Project, that will take place at preschools in Tennessee and New Jersey.

Rosemarie Allen, an assistant professor at Metro State University who presented about the Pyramid Equity Project during last week’s study release event, said of Colorado’s progress, “We are on the right track but we really have to beef up our efforts to address implicit bias, to talk about it.”

Gilliam’s study helps illustrates how complex racial dynamics can be in student-teacher interactions as well as relationships between teachers and families.

Allen, who also leads the Institute for Racial Equity and Excellence, said she wasn’t surprised by the finding that it wasn’t just white teachers who were on high alert for bad behavior from black boys. Still, it’s an uncomfortable topic for some.

“People are not wanting to talk about black teachers (who) did the same thing,” Allen said. “Of course they did. Do you think we’re not all impacted by implicit bias?”

What surprised her more about the study was how preschool teachers reacted when they read a paragraph explaining more about the background and family stressors of the study’s fictional students. Black teachers became more empathetic and rated the problem behaviors of the black students as less severe, while white teachers rated them as more severe.

“I’ve been reflecting on that quite a bit,” Allen said. “If it reinforces stereotypes and you already believe this is hopeless…Is it like, ‘Here we go, you know how they are.’?”

Although she acknowledged that reading a background paragraph isn’t the same as the face-to-face interaction that preschool teachers typically have with families, she said the finding was heartbreaking.

Strain also found the result disturbing, but said, “getting to know people and really understand their life circumstance is clearly an antidote to the operation of implicit bias.”

Both professors said recruiting more teachers of color and creating more training opportunities that help all teachers address implicit bias are important.

The state doesn’t track the racial demographics of early childhood teachers, but national studies suggest about three-quarters of teachers are white and about 10 percent are black. Head Start programs, where about one-third of teachers are black, are a notable exception.

Allen and Strain, who said their universities have been at the forefront of efforts to train future early childhood teachers on implicit bias and cultural competence, also seek more support for existing teachers.

It’s important to provide proactive strategies that teachers can use in real time, Strain said. Simply pointing that children of color are disproportionately suspended and expelled doesn’t help.

“While that’s part of the equation, it’s not necessarily the road to getting folks to change their behavior,” he said.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.