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A link has been posted to your Facebook feed. A new study says teachers can be implicitly biased towards students as early as preschool. Are teachers implicitly biased against African-American students — and African-American boys in particular — as early as preschool? A new study from the Yale Child Study Center wades into this fraught question, looking at preschool teachers’ sometimes unconscious attitudes about student behaviors. The findings suggest that teachers who care for very young children may judge those kids’ behaviors differently based on race: both black and white teachers judge students of the other race more harshly once they know a thing or two about the student’s family lives, for instance.
But one thing seems clear: both black and white teachers are watching black students more closely for potential misbehavior. Yale’s Walter Gilliam, an associate professor of child psychiatry and psychology and the lead researcher on the study. They begin with young black boys and their preschool teachers — if not earlier. For the study, Gilliam’s team set up two experiments with teachers. Then researchers tracked, among other measures, where teachers’ eyes went.
Gilliam told reporters earlier this week. What we did not tell the teachers was that the preschoolers in the videos were all actors assisting us in the study, and that no challenging behaviors were depicted in the videos. Teachers watched a total of 12 clips, each 30 seconds long, featuring a black boy, a black girl, a white boy and a white girl. When primed to detect bad behavior, Gilliam said, teachers gazed longer at the black children, especially boys.
In a second experiment, teachers read descriptions of fictional misbehaving preschoolers, to which researchers had attached fictitious names based on 2011 U. When asked to rate the severity of each child’s misbehavior, teachers actually rated children with white-sounding names more severely. But the findings, released late Tuesday, suggest that expectations cut both ways. For instance, most teachers didn’t suggest suspension or expulsion at higher rates for the misbehaving black students — the only teachers who suggested firmer discipline were themselves black. These teachers believed more strongly than their white co-workers that black students should be suspended for more days for misbehavior. Previous research going back a decade or more — some of it by Gilliam and other Yale researchers — has found that preschool discipline can be harsh. A study from 2005 found that preschool boys were expelled 4.
5 times more often than girls. Black students in state-funded prekindergarten programs were about twice as likely to be expelled as white or Latino classmates. Those brief descriptions actually had the opposite effect on teachers based on their own race, Gilliam said. But when presented with the background information, white teachers rated black and white students’ behavior as equally severe.
But black teachers, given no background information, did just the opposite: they rated black students’ behavior as more severe. When given the background information, black teachers’ expectations flipped: they rated white students’ behavior as more severe. That was one of the most striking findings, Gilliam said. And if the teacher and the child were of different races, it didn’t just fail to create empathy — it seemed to do completely the opposite. It made teachers even more severe in their rating. And that, of course, raises the question of whether or not we’re able to supply empathy to children who come from cultures that are very dissimilar to ours, or from cultures that we may perceive to be dissimilar from ours.