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How Educational Bias Disadvantages Our Black Daughters

A tale of two 7th grade math students—a white son and a black daughter.

Source: Shutterstock

I happen to have two 13-year-olds—one, a white boy, and the other, a black girl. My son is our biological child—and thus white, like me and his dad—and my daughter is adopted from Ethiopia. Let’s call them John and Sarah.

When they were 11 and entering sixth grade, my husband and I enrolled them in a private school in Connecticut, which we chose in large part because it attracts a culturally and racially diverse student body. We figured the lack of economic diversity would be balanced by a cultural richness that our local public school could not provide.

At the end of sixth grade, the school suggested that John take honors pre-algebra in seventh grade, with Sarah remaining in a general math curriculum. John had always been a more serious student, and the kids were fine with it, so we didn’t argue.

As 12-year-olds in seventh grade, John and Sarah did their homework together. Soon, Sarah realized that she could comprehend and finish her brother’s honors math work more quickly than he could. Maybe she had been placed in the wrong math class, she wondered aloud, and deserved to be in honors math as well. This recognition of her ability and newfound spark to excel set in motion a series of events that put us on an upsetting journey that is all too familiar for many families across the country.

Skepticism and doubt

My husband and I started the process with a phone call to the Head of School. Saying she had no control over math placement, she told us to reach out to our kids’ math teacher, the head of the math department, and the head of the middle school. She then worried aloud that we were setting up our daughter for failure. We assured her that we could help Sarah at home if she needed it. We were excited that she was showing an interest in excelling in academics, we explained, and that her confidence had increased. But it was clear that, to the head of school, the issue was more complicated. My husband and I laughed after the call and wondered what the big deal was. It wasn’t like we were asking for Sarah to be moved to geometry or another grade level.

Still, we did as instructed and were given an appointment a few days later. Then a couple of events occurred that we found bizarre and unacceptable. First, the math teacher approached Sarah in the cafeteria and said, in front of many students, “So, I hear you want to be in honors math.” Sarah awkwardly replied that, yes, she was thinking about it. Then, in John’s honors math class later that afternoon, another student asked, “Is Sarah going to be moved to honors?” “I doubt it,” replied the teacher. That day after school, our son angrily reported this public humiliation of his sister to us. When we asked about it later, the teacher expressed remorse and said he had meant it was difficult to change schedules a month into the academic year.

The next day, the head of the math department approached Sarah and explained that no one could move into honors without additional testing, which would take place in a couple of days. She went on to say that the test was very challenging. “There are many questions that you won’t know,” she told Sarah.

As a sociologist, I knew this was a nightmare in the making. Research on self-fulfilling prophesies and stereotype threat shows that if you tell someone they won’t excel, they are far more likely to fail. Sarah came home that afternoon feeling very worried about her ability to perform on the test. Our request was being made into a big deal, drawing unnecessary and unwanted attention to our daughter and framing our family as troublemakers.

A tradition of bias

Study after study shows that even the most well-intentioned teachers, like all human beings, display unconscious bias. These biases take the form of subtle, sometimes subconscious stereotypes that result in lower expectations for black students.

Many education researchers have argued that tracking students into high-achieving and low-achieving groups perpetuates class inequality and is partially to blame for the stubborn achievement gap in the U.S. educational system—between white and Asian students on one side, and black and Latino students on the other.

In the Atlantic, New Jersey parent Walter Fields describes how his African American daughter was denied entry to an advanced freshman math class despite having scores and grades on par with those of white students in the advanced class. Fields and his wife petitioned the principal to allow their daughter to take the higher-level class and are now part of a larger suit against the district.

Black girls, in particular, must often navigate a landscape that reinforces debilitating narratives of black femininity. For example, research shows that larger African American girls are perceived as rowdier and more disruptive than other girls who behave exactly the same way.

“Where did you get the idea...”

On the appointed day, my husband and I arrived for the meeting that the head of school had recommended to find only the head of the middle school in attendance. When we asked why the others weren’t there, he said that they weren’t free and that he wanted to “calm things down.” I took a deep breath, held my tongue, and explained that our daughter was reeling from the reaction of her math teacher and the head of the math department. Our bright, bubbly kid was sad, embarrassed, and doubting her request to be moved up. The middle school administrator proceeded to give us a speech about the history of the school’s math department and then claimed that the school’s actions were for Sarah’s “protection.” We asked him to help restore Sarah’s flagging confidence. He agreed, and a few days later we met in the head of school’s office with Sarah.

The head of the middle school started things off by asking our daughter why she thought she could move up to honors math. When she explained her facility in completing her brother’s work, he looked incredulous. It would be extremely difficult to institute such a change, he told her. “Where did you get the idea that you could move to a more advanced class?” he again asked her.

My heart was breaking, and I knew then that I had to get my daughter out of this school. “There is a magic moment when a youngster begins to gain academic efficacy and to feel that they can accomplish more and be more,” I said. “When our daughter had the audacity to have that moment, you humiliated her and crushed it.”

Our son, John, asked to leave the school as well. His vision of a fair and just society had been compromised, because he knew his sister deserved what he had been given so freely — respect and a chance to excel.

We placed Sarah and John in new schools. I’m keenly aware that most parents don’t have the ability to move schools in the face of bias. Our younger daughter stayed at their old school to finish out the year, but no teacher or administrator ever discussed what had happened with us again. No one made an effort to debrief or share what they had learned from the experience. In fact, when our daughter came back to collect her belongings, the head of school followed her closely, as if she were a criminal.

What needs to be done

If John had been a black girl, would he have been recommended for honors math? If Sarah had been a white boy, would she have been doubted and challenged for pushing herself? We don’t know for sure, but we do know that a seventh-grade black girl was given a glimpse into a society that expects her to sit quietly and not ask for more.

The good news is that when educators view their videotaped interactions with students in the classroom, they are able to see and acknowledge their gender and racial bias, research shows. Schools need to train all of their personnel to recognize and combat their gender- and race-based biases, which are deeply ingrained in all of us.

Walter S. Gilliam, an expert on educators’ implicit biases, offers reason to be hopeful. He reminds us that teachers, who are paid relatively little, stay in the field because they love young children. “Be proactive,” he advises the parents of black children. “Get to know your child’s teachers, director, and staff.”

At their new schools, both my son and my daughter were recommended for advanced math, and both are doing well academically. But every now and then, we see a cloud of self-doubt and fear come over our daughter as she recollects how an entire school felt she wasn’t worthy of honors math.

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