Last Updated on May 2, 2015 by Paulette Brown-Hinds

By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – When teachers harbor subconscious racial bias, they are far more likely to discipline White students less severely than African Americans, according to a new study.

As early as kindergarten, Black girls are being suspended at six times the rate of White girls, and more than all boys except fellow African Americans. Black boys are being suspended at three times the rate of White boys. According to 2010 figures from the Department’s Civil Rights Data Collection, 44 percent of those suspended more than once that year, and 36 percent of those expelled were Black – despite being less than 20 percent of the student population.

“Stereotypes serve as sort of a glue that sticks separate encounters together in our mind and lead us to then respond more negatively,” says Jason Okonofua, doctoral student at Stanford University and co-author of the study, “Two Strikes: Race and the Disciplining of Young Students.”

“In the study we have…the stereotype that the student is a ‘troublemaker’ leads the teacher to see two separate instances of misbehavior as constituting a pattern. Therefore following the second misbehavior there’s a sharp escalation in how severely the teacher wants to discipline a Black child.”

This is known as the “Black escalation effect.” As the number of behavioral issues increases, it is perceived as more of a threat to the classroom if the doer is Black. Black escalation leads teachers to discipline Black students faster and more harshly than their White counterparts, even when the students have the same number and types of offenses.

In the study, which appears in the April issue of Psychological Science, 53 teachers, all women, mostly White, were given a school record for a hypothetical student. Each record detailed two minor misbehaviors (classroom disruption and insubordination) – some for a hypothetical child named Darnell or Deshawn, others for a hypothetical child named Jake or Greg.

On average, teachers responded the same way to Darnell, Deshawn, Greg, and Jake on their first misbehaviors. But on the second offense, they were more likely to punish the boys they perceived as Black, more likely to issue harsher punishments to them, and more likely to label them “troublemakers.”

All of the participants were current K-12 teachers with an average of 14 years of experience.

“We discovered, the more likely teachers thought a student was Black, the more harshly they wanted to punish them,” Okonofua says. “That’s surprising because all we manipulated in the study was the names. But it’s not just the student’s name, it’s the level of Blackness teachers think the student is.”

The teachers in the study also reported feeling “more troubled” over second offenses when they perceived the student as Black (also by their own report). Further, when the students were perceived as Black, the teachers were more likely to report that they could see themselves suspending him in the future.

Stereotypes largely drive the Black escalation effect. Black children are more likely to be stereotyped as aggressive, defiant, and learning-disabled; when Black children misbehave and are disciplined, these stereotypes can kick in and result in harsher reactions.

Okonofua says, “Most school teachers work hard at treating their students equally. And yet, even among these well-intentioned and hardworking people, we find that cultural stereotypes about Black people are bending people’s perceptions toward less favorable interpretations of Black students’ behavior.”

The Department of Education estimates that 2014 was the first year students of color and White students reached equal numbers in the nation’s elementary and middle schools. Among kids under 5 years old, children of color are already the majority.

Most teacher training programs are not equipped to prepare future teachers for the realities of multiracial classrooms. But some programs have begun to recognize the impact this has on educational outcomes for the nation’s students of color.

“Part of the challenge of this is, for racial bias to even be brought to the table it requires a certain level of racial consciousness on the part of the teacher educator,” said Tyrone Howard, professor of education at University of California, Los Angeles.

“Ninety percent of all teacher educators are White. And by and large, most White people don’t think about issues of race.”

In addition to training teachers, Howard serves as the founding director of UCLA’s Black Male Institute to improve educational outcomes for Black boys, as well as the faculty director of UCLA Center X, a program that cultivates social justice-minded teachers for low-income Los Angeles public schools.

In his experience, White aspiring teachers tend to be uncomfortable or annoyed when he brings racism, stereotypes, and bias into his instruction. Meanwhile, he says, aspiring teachers of color often feel marginalized and unprepared for classrooms when their training programs avoid discussions on race. “When I was in the Midwest, where the majority of my [education] students were White, there’s oftentimes a reticence to engage in that work while they’re in the program,” he says, adding that he was often told he made White people uncomfortable. “But once they’ve had the opportunity to understand that race is ever-present and that students of color are always watchful of what they say, what they do, and how they act…then [teachers] begin to see ‘Wow, I didn’t realize these issues were real.’”

Another challenge is that few programs have a system in place to verify whether their anti-bias training is effective once education students enter real classrooms.

But such programs are the exception. Most teachers receive little to no discussion or training on these issues – and in most states, this has no bearing on the requirements for earning teaching credentials.

For teachers who lack access to adequate anti-bias, anti-racist training, Okonofua has found through other research that refocusing on maintaining warm relationships with each student weakens the effect of subconscious biases.

Howard believes that without formal interventions, the effort to make teachers more culturally competent and will be too little, too late.

He says: “As long as states and credentialing commissions don’t make this a staple of what is required for credentials, it will always be looked at as optional or it will always be on the fringes.”