Bias Isn't Just A Police Problem, It's A Preschool Problem : NPR Ed A new study by researchers at Yale found that pre-K teachers, white and black alike, spend more time watching black boys, expecting trouble.

Bias Isn't Just A Police Problem, It's A Preschool Problem

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Racial bias has been much in the news in the wake of a series of police shootings of unarmed African-American men.

During Monday night's presidential debate, Hillary Clinton said it's not just a problem for police.


HILLARY CLINTON: I think, unfortunately, too many of us in our great country jump to conclusions about each other. And therefore, I think we need all of us to be asking hard questions.

MONTAGNE: That would include those who help shape the youngest among us. A new report from the Yale Child Study Center has found evidence of implicit racial bias among preschool teachers.

Here to tell us more about those findings is Cory Turner of the NPR Ed Team.

Good morning.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Sketch out for us how this study was organized, which, by the way, I imagine bias is a very hard thing to study and to nail down.

TURNER: It's very hard. Because the moment you tell your subject that you're studying bias, you're probably not going to get an honest answer. So it's what makes this study so interesting because the team from Yale had to create something essentially tricky.

They recruited roughly 135 preschool teachers and had them watch video footage of four kids - a black boy, black girl, a white boy and a white girl. And they were told watch the footage. Your job is to press the enter key on your keyboard every time you see a behavior that could become a potential challenge.

Now here's the tricky part. While the teachers were doing this, the researchers were using eye scan technology to measure the trajectory of their gazes to see which kids they were watching, anticipating bad behavior.

MONTAGNE: And what happened?

TURNER: Well, they spent the most time watching the black boy. And interestingly, this is true of both white and black teachers.

The researchers then asked the teachers explicitly, which child did you feel required the most attention? Forty-two percent said the black boy, 34 percent the white boy, just 13 percent the white girl and 10 percent the black girl.

MONTAGNE: So teachers were not necessarily seeing bad behavior where there wasn't any, but they spent the most time watching the black boy, as you've just said, expecting bad behavior.

TURNER: Exactly. In fact, in the video, there was no bad behavior at all.

And when I spoke with lead researcher Walter Gilliam, he told me, you know, the problem with this is if you look for something in only one place, well, that's the only place you can typically find it.

And that helps make sense of what we already know about preschool suspensions, which is that black children make up about 19 percent of preschoolers in the U.S., but make up nearly half of preschoolers who get suspended.

MONTAGNE: And, Cory, this study was in two parts. Walk us through the second half of it.

TURNER: This is where it gets even more interesting.

So teachers were each given a paragraph to read that described a hypothetical student - sometimes a boy, sometimes a girl - doing some pretty disruptive things in the classroom, hitting, pushing, throwing toys. And the student was randomly assigned a stereotypical name. And the teachers were asked to rate the severity of these bad behaviors.

But where it gets really interesting is when some of these teachers were also given background information about the child, saying that this child comes from a relatively poor household, lives mostly with his or her mother. Father has been in and out, mother is depressed, works three jobs. The researchers really wanted to find out would this make the teachers more empathetic to the kids?

And it did when the teachers were of the same race as the student. But interestingly, it had the opposite effect for teachers who were of a different race from the student. It actually made them less empathetic.


TURNER: You know, Renee, that's just a really complicated question that this research doesn't entirely answer.

I talked to lead researcher Walter Gilliam, and he did tell me this.

WALTER GILLIAM: Teachers ended up feeling that the behavioral problems were hopeless, and that very little could be done to actually improve the situation.

TURNER: Renee, I will say there is one glimmer of hope here. Researchers all agree that if we're really going to confront the challenges of implicit bias in our schools and everywhere else, we have to talk about it. We have to be honest about it.

And Gilliam told me that because there was deception involved in his study, he was ethically obligated to go back to these 130-some-odd teachers that he worked with, and to tell them I deceived you. You have the right to withdraw your data from my study. And he said he was pleasantly surprised that only one did.

MONTAGNE: That's Cory Turner of NPR's Ed team. Thanks very much.

TURNER: Thank you, Renee.

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