Data from the US DOE indicates that nearly half of the preschoolers who get suspended are black. However, only 19% of all preschool students are black. Is this because black children are more likely to misbehave? Or does it imply bias on the part of preschool teachers?
Walter Gilliam led a team from Yale’s Child Study Center that used an innovative approach to study this issue. Gilliam did not want to convey that he planned to study implicit bias, so he set up a study that appeared to look at something else.
The exam followed 135 preschool teachers as they watched a video of preschool children engaged in various activities. He told the teachers that some of the clips might contain “challenging behaviors” and to press a key on the keypad every time they saw a behavior that could become a challenge. The video included a white boy and girl along with a black boy and girl.
Gilliam’s team also used eye-scan technology to study the teachers’ gaze and determine who they watched when they expected bad behavior. What did they find? Regardless of their race, teachers looked more closely at the black children—especially the black boy.
This finding suggested to Gilliam that teachers find more behavioral problems in black children because they look for it so closely. The next part of his study revealed even more subconscious racial bias.
The teachers read a one-paragraph vignette that described a child disrupting the class. The researchers randomly assigned a stereotypical name to the child (Jake, Emily, DeShawn, Latoya) and asked the teachers to rate the severity of the children’s behavior on a scale of 1 to 5.
Black teachers held the black students to a higher standard and consistently rated their behavior as more severe than that of the white students. White teachers did the opposite. They rated the black students’ behavior as less severe, suggested that they believed that the black boys were more likely to behave poorly.
As disturbing as these results are, one good finding came out of the study. Only one of the teachers asked to withdraw when informed of the true nature of the study. That strongly suggested that the rest of the teachers were comfortable confronting their biases.