In the context of looking at existing beliefs that can lead to over-suspension, over-referral, and stubborn disproportionality in school discipline, we need to consider different kinds of bias, both implicit and explicit, which can get in the way of building an accountable, restorative school culture based on shared values.

As Executive Director Larry Dieringer said in an institute Engaging Schools conducted in Pittsfield, MA over the summer:

If we want to reduce and eliminate the disproportionate use of harsh and exclusionary school discipline, we need to address the role played by implicit and explicit bias. Bias is an equity issue, because disproportionality is an equity issue. Eliminating disproportionality helps to create equity, opportunity, and access for all students.

The distinction between implicit and explicit bias is that implicit bias is unconscious – everyone holds it in varying degrees for various groups. By virtue of living in our culture, it’s almost as though it soaks into your pores. It’s a challenge to grapple with. And most of the time people who are actively working against particular biases hold some of these biases themselves.

Another challenge in addressing bias in school is getting to a point where it’s possible to have open and honest conversations about all forms of bias. It’s not often easy. People have a tough time talking about it. There’s a lot of blame and shame that can happen or be experienced.

How do we conduct respectful dialogue about these issues, and hold ourselves accountable for the quality of the conversation and not be afraid?

School data can be one way into this: collecting it, disaggregating it, and looking at it, and having conversations about what it tells us. That’s one way into a dialogue, but it’s not the only way.

Elevating awareness is another step toward having respectful dialogues about bias and reducing disproportionality: helping people become aware of their zones of discomfort.

There are many ways that our biases can influence how we teach and treat our students. We may make assumptions about a particular gender, or students with developmental delays or disabilities. Racial and cultural biases can trigger mistrust and negative stereotyping. We may not acknowledge students’ different learning profiles. Negativity bias leads us to recall negative memories more strongly than positive ones, making it hard for us to “see” the whole student.

An excellent resource is an article by Cheryl Staats in American Educator, “Understanding Implicit Bias; What Educators Should Know.” Staats points out that “implicit bias can kick in in situations that involve ambiguous or incomplete information; the presence of time constraints; and circumstances when our cognitive control may be compromised such as through fatigue or having a lot on our minds.” Since these situations are common in school environments, it is not surprising that the negative effects of bias show up in discipline results.

Staats itemizes some ways educators can address the implicit associations we form.

  • Meaningful engagement with individuals whose identities differ from our own
  • Exposure to and engagement with individuals who contradict stereotypes
  • Gathering data to bring to light trends and patterns in disparate treatment of individuals
  • Taking time to process situations and information before making decisions

American Educator, Winter 2015-2016 edition


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