School Leaders, What Are You Doing About Your Schools’ Racial Bias?

It’s 8:45 a.m. on a Tuesday, do you know where your school’s culture is on the continuum of cultural proficiency? Is it trending towards proficiency or cultural destructiveness? Where (in your school) and how might your students and their families be experiencing racial biases right now?

That’s a question most any school leader should be able to answer, but precious few actually can.  

The challenge of addressing racial bias–both implicit and explicit–in classrooms has long been on the tips of the tongues of education leaders, researchers, and advocates. And rightly so. Racial bias injures children, reduces their academic and social trajectory, and reinforces the most pernicious elements of systemic injustice.  But it’s mighty challenging work to unearth that bias and take steps to ameliorate it. 

A recent study by researchers at Washington University and Johns Hopkins University found that bias can be found in the most subtle of school locations: the very language that teachers use in talking about their students.  The study found that negative views of Black children “were part of a culture of coded racial stereotypes” which then drives disproportionality in discipline of Black students.   

This thoughtful study gives further evidence of what several others have found: teacher bias is a major barrier to academic and social success for Black children.  Research shows that the bias starts at the very beginning of schooling–in preschool–and compounds upon itself to higher rates of academic failure and incarceration.  

But how do we take it from merely a cause célèbre to something that is actually built into the who, how and why of teaching, leadership and school organization?

Part of the challenge is fully uncovering the extent of the problem.  Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, an expert on race relations, characterizes the disinformation of bias as an invisible “smog”, impossible to see but pervasive and injurious to all who breathe it.  

Being proactive, by stating publicly as a leader that taking on bias is a priority for you personally and the school generally, is a vital first step: Acknowledging that you too have your own biases to interrogate, that you too breath the “smog”, but you are here to look at them honestly in partnership with staff, students and families. Taking personal responsibility as a leader is the prerequisite to collaboratively addressing the collective harms of bias in schools.  

Approaching the problem with a sense of openness and curiosity is also essential.  Just as important is to center the inquiry on the student experience.  Leadership teams should strive to understand how families experience the school community, their leadership and the practice of educators; which classrooms students feel the most challenged and supported; and which classrooms do students feel the most put down.  

Leaders can and should model this inquiry-based approach, demonstrating to their staff and leadership teams that ‘we’re all learners’ and that the process is part and parcel of improving one’s craft, showing that content and culture combine to form community, and that an ethic of care is essential for success as an educator. Self-examination, reflection, and understanding how others experience your leadership, your teaching, your partnership, your colleagueship are all steps in the right direction. 

Leveraging the tools of the system to uncover, understand and unwind bias can be a powerful mechanism for taking this work from questioning and curiosity to understanding and action.  At my previous school, we found that well-facilitated professional learning communities could be tailormade venues for analyzing how race, class, power and privilege play out in our school’s data.  From disciplinary referrals and formative assessments to family engagement and classroom management, PLCs are well situated to look at inputs and outcomes to understand the system effects of bias. 

Once a shared understanding is established, educators are better positioned to collaborate in the work of unwinding bias in practice. Seeing the challenge as a shared problem and opportunity builds buy-in, takes the focus off individual failure and reorients the effort toward progress over perfection.  Which is extraordinarily important because this is hard work and missteps are all but inevitable.  However, that messy, but sustained process exemplifies so much of what being an educator is, so much of what teaching and learning looks like in the real world of the classroom. 

Admitting you have a problem, as always, is the first step in addressing racial bias in the classroom. It’s not enough for leaders to say and know it, they must support their educators in a journey of self-examination that helps them see the “smog” of bias around themselves and their teaching practice, and empowers them with the tools to take action to address it.  

The mindsets that yield bias are deeply embedded, so unearthing them can be a hard and sometimes painful process. It is the responsibility and obligation of a leader, especially a school leader, to ensure educators have the tools and support they need to do this critical work. 

It’s time to get to it. 

The original version of this blog was published on the Education Week website.

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


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