Back-to-School Equity Series, Part 3: Looking at Data to Root Out Bias in Your School – and in Your Own Practice

by | 08.26.20

This is Part 3 of Ashley’s back-to-school equity series. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Any coach or administrator can tell you: Just by walking into a classroom and seeing the demographics of the students, you can often tell right off the bat whether you’re in an honors level class or not. That should not be the case.

Last school year, my colleagues and I wanted to address the unconscious bias that leads to overwhelmingly white honors level classes. I ran a meeting to address the way bias might be showing up in the ways we assign students to honors classes. I pulled achievement data on students – just their grades and various test scores – and removed all other demographic information. I presented teachers with this information and asked them to identify which students they expected to be in honors classes, based on their achievements.

I then gave them more information about each student, including their race, and I revealed whether the students were actually in honors classes or not. Right away, teachers saw that none of the students of color who they’d highlighted as likely honors students were in honors classes. We also had white students who didn’t meet our honors criteria, but who were in our honors classes.

Some teachers wondered if I had chosen ideal candidates to prove a point. But I hadn’t. I had just pulled up a roster and randomly selected 10 kids. It was an “aha” moment for a lot of educators in the room.

Our enrollment in gifted and talented, honors and AP classes should look like our student body. But it doesn’t. Similarly, our enrollment in special education classes should reflect the demographics of our student body, too. But it doesn’t. This is part of the disparity in the education we are perpetuating. How are we avoiding bias as we assign students to classes?

We have to acknowledge that all of us have biases – and bias is built into the systems in our schools as well. A lot of my students are English language learners. Their families don’t speak English, and so they aren’t able to help with enrollment into advanced classes. They don’t know how to get the paperwork done. So how are we making sure that we are providing opportunities to all of our students – not just those whose families have the privilege of being able to navigate our systems and advocate for their own kids? How are we checking ourselves and saying, “Okay, am I really advocating for my students and making sure that they are being pushed upwards? Am I pushing all my kids to take on new challenges?”

This is one of the ways data can serve our goals to make our schools more anti-racist. We might feel like we’re giving all our students opportunities, but looking at data on our students lets us know whether or not our intentions are playing out in our students’ experiences.

Data can also be our friend when it comes to seeking out and addressing biases within ourselves, as individual educators. We all have biases – as much as we might like to think otherwise. For me to say that I am not biased toward Black women and Black children is a lie. It’s natural to be biased toward people who look like yourself and your family. Sometimes, I’m partial toward boys. Maybe it’s because I’m a boy mom – I don’t know. I have to realize that when someone suggests I might be biased, they’re not saying I’m a bad person. But when we don’t acknowledge our biases, when we don’t face up to them, that’s when we have a problem.

We can’t overcome our biases unless we acknowledge that they exist. I think some people feel that acknowledging you have a bias means that you are a racist – but racism comes into play when you’re not willing to work on your biases and counter them.

Because I recognized my bias toward boys in my class, I started to take stock of my classroom interactions. I noticed how often I talked with the boys in my class and how often I talked with girls. And sure enough, I called on boys more often than I called on girls. So I had to make a conscious effort not to do that. When I saw a boy raise his hand, I told myself, “Hey, yes, I want to call on him. But let me make it a point to call on a girl this time.” This is something we can do along with our colleagues, too, by inviting them into our classrooms (or our Zoom meetings) to take tallies for us.

It’s not enough to say that we try to be fair to all our students. We have to discuss what measures we’re taking to hold ourselves accountable – as schools and as individual educators.

As our third and final action together, I want to invite you to think about ways you can use data to address and work against your own biases in the school year ahead. Maybe that means gathering a meeting to look at school-wide data, like I did with my colleagues. Maybe that means asking a colleague to take a tally of the students you call on. Whatever you choose, make sure you are open to discovery – and open to addressing the bias you might uncover, so every student can have an opportunity to achieve in your school.

About the Author

Ashley Washington
Ashley Washington

Ashley Washington is an educator in Texas. Follow her on Twitter @AshleyWashIC.

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