Systemic Bias in Education – A Brief Case Study

I posted the following notes on an event in my life to my public Facebook page. What I found interesting, and sad, was the number of personal stories I heard from black high achievers that I knew in response. They had experienced the same thing (being kept from advanced opportunities) or worse (being threatened with being held back despite good performance) and only made it as far as they had because their parents were able to fight for them unrelentingly. I also heard other stories about children of other ethnicities experiencing other kinds of bias from their schools.

I think about this in more detail now because of the potential changes coming to our public education system. How do we ensure that implicit bias does not have a meaningful impact on outcomes of already disadvantaged groups?

I am helping a guardian (grandmother) of a black child I know through my father’s network of professional friends get him into a gifted program. The child scored in the 92nd percentile overall on a real and comprehensive IQ test (average in 1 out of 5, high average in 3 out of 5, and very high in 1) but there is some question by his school administrators about his ability to succeed in the program. He’s generally well-behaved and has no emotional or behavioral issues of which I am aware. What’s more, the program seems to have separable components to allow for more children, so he should qualify for at least one part based on his very high performance in one category.

It’s easy to chalk this up to the administrator taking the lay of the land and knowing the whole child. However, the problem comes in when we examine the standards in his state for gifted program access. The standards in most states indicate that “high potential” or “above average ability” be demonstrated without defining a test standard or performance percentile. This to me sounds like an administrator can pick and choose from among the top 10% or so of performers.

All that is fine until we bring in the body of knowledge around implicit bias. Imagine that an administrator, with no ill intent or conscious bias toward anyone, looks at a child like this one. The numbers are good, but they’re not perfect. Her gut tells her, “he doesn’t have the range.” Never mind that another child of a different ethnicity might have gotten by with a comparable score. The numbers were different. Maybe the percentile was lower but it was more even throughout. And that kid just had that thing, you know? It’s not personal and it’s definitely not racist.

Without undeniable numbers like 99th percentile, such a child as the one I’m helping gets denied opportunities for expansion and advancement. Because of historical bias, the child is often already starting at a disadvantage. As a result, it becomes that much harder for him to get a foothold and get ahead, and create something he can pass on to his next generation.

This is how systemic racism works without a single actual racist lifting a finger.

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