Researchers at the Yale Child Study Center have shed light on implicit racial and gender bias as it affects preschool teachers.
The team of researchers, led by Walter Gilliam, director of The Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, conducted a two-part behavioral study, using longtime early educators as their participants. The researchers released a Research Study Brief on Sept. 28, but the study has not yet been published in a scientific journal.
Associate Research Scientist at the Zigler Center and study co-author Chin Reyes said the team found that the educators who participated in the study tended to assume and expect more challenging behaviors from black boys than from other children.
“This may account for the disproportionate expulsion and suspension rates of these children, which may create a cycle of educational exclusion throughout these children’s educational trajectory and adult life,” she said.
The team’s specific conclusions were twofold, according to Reyes. First, early educators of all races were more likely to gaze at black boys over black girls and white children when expecting challenging behavior in a learning environment.
Second, implicit racial bias in early educators was influenced by the educators’ race.
“To understand implicit bias, you have to consider the teacher’s race. It’s ‘not as black and white,’” Reyes said.
The research has attracted national media attention, and the team presented their findings on Sept. 28 at the U.S. Administration for Children and Families 2016 State and Territory Administrators Meeting.
The Research Study Brief was initially released at the request of the federal government.
“They knew of the study and felt that the issue was too important especially given the sociopolitical milieu,” Reyes said.
The study was executed in two parts. One-hundred and thirty two early educators were asked to view six minutes of video clips showing four children — a black boy, a black girl, a white boy and a white girl — and told to watch for potentially problematic behavior. No problematic behavior was shown in the clips, but researchers quantified participants’ time spent looking at each of the four children by using sophisticated eye-tracking technology. They found that on average teachers spent significantly more time watching black boys than other children.
In a follow-up survey, 42 percent of participants self-reported that they spent the most time looking at black boys, compared with 34 percent who reported predominantly watching white boys, 13 percent who reported predominantly watching white girls and 10 percent who said they watched black girls the most.
In the second phase of the experiment, participants were randomly split into eight groups to measure how three variables — race, gender and knowledge of home situation — might affect an educator’s propensity to recommend a child for suspension or expulsion. Researchers gave the educators a fictitious vignette of a problematic student, changing the names in each group to stereotypically black or white and female or male names — DeShawn, Jake, Latoya and Emily. Half of the participants were also read a short paragraph about this fictitious child’s problematic home life to see if the educators’ evaluations of the situation would differ from those of their peers who did not receive the background information.
Reyes said that teachers who identified as the same race as the given child were found to be more sympathetic when given the background information. However, the opposite was found to be true in the case of teachers who did not identify as the same race as the child.
In designing the experiments, the researchers attempted to address whether black boys are disproportionately suspended and expelled from early education programs because of implicit biases within the system.
Although the sample size was relatively large for an eye-tracking study, according to Reyes, the researchers still wished they could have included more participants. Additionally, since responses differed most significantly between white and black early educators in the vignette experiment, the team wished they could have focused exclusively on these educators.
Sara Anderson, an early childhood education researcher and assistant professor of Learning Sciences and Human Development in the College of Education at West Virginia University, found the Research Study Brief to contain very compelling results but gave a similar critique of the study’s small sample size and limited composition.
Study participants were chosen based on attendance at a national early educators conference, allowing the possibility that this group could be “the cream of the crop of the early childhood educators,” Anderson said. “You have to wonder how it would look in a more diverse population.”
Anderson, who conducted a long-term evaluation of the Tulsa Pre-Kindergarten program, also raised questions about the study’s ecological validity, or how the researchers’ findings translate to actual behavior in a classroom setting.
The research team’s intent was not to vilify early educators but rather to explore the nature of implicit bias, which is “innate, automatically triggered and unconscious,” Reyes said.The implications of this research stretch from the educational sphere to policymaking on the state and federal levels, according to the Research Study Brief.
The race of the teacher also plays a large role in the shaping of implicit bias and ultimate treatment of problematic students, the brief stated. While the team did not recommend any actions pertaining to hiring more teachers of color, federal officials are using the researcher’s findings to back current programs meant to diversify the educational workforce.
“Research has shown that a diverse educator workforce has benefits for all students and can have particular benefits for students of color,” U.S. Department of Education Press Secretary & Strategic Communications Adviser Dorie Nolt said.
“This study sheds a light on an important issue that Secretary [of Education John] King talks about frequently: the current lack of diversity among the teaching profession.” A range of initiatives to hire and support more educators of color is being [spearheaded] by the Department of Education, having been prompted by this study and other early education research, Nolt said.
In terms of state legislature, the team’s work has already influenced local policy. Based on their findings, the researchers recommended an end to preschool expulsions, which the team concluded can be heavily influenced by implicit biases of the educator. In 2015, Connecticut became the first state to ban preschool expulsions, due in part to the research and recommendations from the Yale researchers.
The team is now working on translating their findings into concrete interventions and reforms for the national early education system, Reyes said They are also in the process of submitting their findings to a journal for proper scientific publication.