Examining Systems and Self for Racial Equity
What form of professional learning can address the internalized, unconscious biases that fester in K-12 schooling?

Clockwise from top left: Gail Cruise-Roberson, Sarah Fiarman and Odie Douglas meet via Zoom.
A teacher refers Black boys for special education services at a rate much higher than her peers. A white teacher says she is afraid to meet with a Black father for parent conferences because she feels unsafe. Students complain tdhat a classmate’s lunch from home smells funny and the teacher encourages the Asian student to bring “regular food” to school from now on. When a white student says she’s going to wear a “white lives matter” T-shirt to school, her principal shrugs and says why not?

The school day is filled with interactions such as these — interactions that, accumulated day after day, communicate to students and families of color whether they are respected and valued and whether they are supported to succeed academically and socially in the school community.

A typical day’s interactions also reinforce racial ignorance for white students who are denied opportunities to learn about lives different from their own and how their racial identity shapes their experience.

A Dual Focus

How do education leaders interrupt interactions that negatively impact students and families of color? What does it take to make schools places where students are supported and where all students and families feel they belong?

A single professional development day with an outside speaker will not be enough to eliminate the often-unconscious biases we’ve all internalized. A district statement denouncing racism or a new anti-bullying policy will not — on its own — eliminate the biased beliefs and associations we unconsciously absorb like breathing in smog.

Often school district leaders try to address inequities by examining data and adopting a continuous improvement approach. Sometimes they will undertake an audit of current practices and adopt new, more inclusive policies. These steps are vital to ensure all students are served equally well. However, systems and data work are not enough.

A successful approach to combating racism and other forms of bias in our schools also requires examining beliefs. Too often, in the rush to action, this gets neglected. As a result — even with new policies or data systems — inequities persist.

Attending to Beliefs

Why should districts invest in changing beliefs? For the same reason we do anything in school districts: It affects student learning. Most educators are unaware of the biases they hold. These biases influence actions, which in turn have negative effects on students and families. Consider the findings of the following two studies.

»Academic assessment and feedback: In a 2012 study of teacher feedback, researcher Kent Harber and others from Rutgers University gave teachers the identical poorly written essay. When teachers thought a student was Black or Latinx, they tended to give more praise and less criticism than when teachers thought the essay was from a white student.

These findings suggest that teachers didn’t believe the Black and Brown students could do better and thus didn’t give them advice for improvement.

»Behavior assessment and feedback: in 2015, researchers Jason Okonofua and Jennifer Eberhardt from Stanford University gave teachers of all racial backgrounds a set of class discipline data constructed using randomly assigned names suggesting a student was white or Black. When assessing a student’s first behavioral infraction, teachers treated all examples the same. When assessing a student’s second behavioral infraction, teachers were more likely to label the child a troublemaker and recommend a harsher punishment if they believed the student was Black.

This research published in Psychological Science in 2015, suggests teachers are more likely to see a pattern and assume negative character traits when the child is Black.

While policies and practices (such as using grading rubrics and discipline flowcharts) can help reduce the impact of teacher bias, they do not get at the root of the problem: deep-seated bias, often unconscious, lodged in individual belief systems.

Helping educators recognize that we all harbor bias is a crucial lever for improving student learning results, but it is challenging, long-term work. We’ve learned this kind of work requires the following: experiential, relational learning; a focus on identity development; and an understanding of the social systems that shape our experience and the experiences of people different from ourselves. We explore these conditions below.

One example of this kind of professional development comes from the experience one of us (Douglas) had leading equity work as associate superintendent for secondary education in Elk Grove Unified School District in California.

Rooted in Relationships

Changing beliefs is more complicated than mastering a new math curriculum. It involves adopting new mindsets, not just new skill sets. Such work requires a willingness to be personally transformed.

How does that happen? How do people come to the conclusion they need to do their work differently to be in just relationships with students, families and colleagues? How do these conversations happen without spiraling into shame, blame and defensiveness?

In the case of Elk Grove, the district adopted the approach of the National SEED Project, an organization that develops teacher leaders who facilitate monthly seminars for their peers to drive personal and organizational change.

The seminars were not lectures. Rather, participants told personal stories from their lives and their loved ones’ lives. Through building trust and learning about experiences different from their own, teachers learned to interact with people across differences in ways that were just and compassionate. Participants listened not with the goal of arguing with the person but rather with the goal of understanding another person’s experience. These activities required a different level of engagement than typical professional learning opportunities.

Teachers transferred this experience to their work with students. One participant said she learned “I cannot lecture to students about ‘uprooting’ racism. Students’ voices sharing their experiences in a safe environment are the key to uprooting racism.”

Identity Development

To have respectful interactions with people across difference, we need to first understand our own identity.

Many white educators have little or no experience reflecting on their racial identity and the way it shapes their experience. This lack of awareness means they’re often not aware of how differently a student of color experiences the world. In addition, SEED participants in Elk Grove came to understand the concept of “intersectionality” that scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined to explain that people’s identities cannot be considered in isolation. One of us (Douglas) discovered that while he experienced discrimination as a Black man, his identity as a straight man led him to unknowingly reinforce discrimination for LGBTQ+ students. This recognition spurred him to learn more about the experiences and needs of LGBTQ+ students in the district.

With increased self-awareness, Elk Grove educators participating in SEED came to view students and families differently — with greater empathy and more curiosity. They also became more aware of the ways their identities influenced their life experiences and shaped their world view. No one looks at the world with a neutral lens. As one participant said, “Being in SEED is like experiencing an earthquake. The plates have shifted and you can’t go back. The landscape is forever altered.”

Understanding Systems

Effective professional development helps participants recognize the ways they have been either penalized or rewarded based on identities and then examine the social systems that produce these outcomes. One Elk Grove teacher explained, “I have become more aware of problems that exist that seemed invisible to me before.”

For example, teachers in Elk Grove began to see that if they wanted to disrupt the stereotypes students held, they would need to rethink class reading lists centered largely or entirely on stories of white, Christian, straight people.

Others described noticing a pattern of Black and Latinx students being underrepresented in honors classes. One teacher explained that SEED helped her recognize that the pattern wasn’t a reflection of the students but of the conditions surrounding them. She increased the rigor of her support for her Black and Latinx students and actively encouraged them to sign up for honors classes.

These are some examples of ways teachers learned to analyze how district and school practices either replicated or interrupted inequitable outcomes and how to respond with action.

Long-Term Commitment

Policy changes are vital, but they are not sufficient to ensure just outcomes for students. Districts may adopt a reform-minded discipline system or new policies regarding honors enrollment. However, without examining the mindsets that lead teachers and administrators to over-refer Black and Brown students for discipline and under-prepare and under-refer Black and Brown students for advanced learning, the results will not change. Without directly addressing beliefs, educators across roles will continue to unconsciously view Black and Brown students with more suspicion, less empathy and lower expectations.

A long-term strategy includes changing beliefs and involves investing in strong teacher leaders who can lead cohorts of peers over time. In this way, from teacher to teacher, transformation takes root.

GAIL CRUISE-ROBERSON is co-director of National SEED Project at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass. Twitter: @NatlSEEDProject. ODIE DOUGLAS is the interim assistant superintendent of Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District in Livermore, Calif. SARAH FIARMAN, a leadership consultant in Somerville, Mass., is co-author of Unconscious Bias in Schools: A Developmental Approach to Exploring Race and Racism.