Turning bias around in the classroom

Government statistics show that Black students are at greater risk for being suspended than any other demographic in the United States.

This disproportionality is fueled by stereotypes casting them as “troublemakers” — a label Black students too often internalize as part of their identities, experts say. It also interferes with their opportunities to learn. Being suspended or expelled can contribute to dropout rates or, in a worst-case scenario, the school-to-prison pipeline.

According to an Arizona State University education professor, disciplinary action and exclusionary policies can lead to distrust rather than deterrence. Besides, he and a few colleagues think they have a better way.

Geoffrey D. Borman, the Alice Wiley Snell Endowed Professor at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, recently headed up a research team involving three of his former students to test an intervention to buffer Black students from stereotypes and mitigate the racial suspension gap. Their research paper, “A Replicable Identity-Based Intervention Reduces the White Suspension Gap at Scale,” is the result of a multiyear, districtwide effort involving all 11 middle schools from Madison (Wisconsin) Metropolitan School District.

ASU News spoke to Borman about how the U.S. education and criminal systems produce punishment, social engagement and inequality.

Man in suit and tie smiling

Geoffrey D. Borman

Question: What motivated you to pursue this research?

Answer: Originally, I had read a 2009 article by Geoffrey Cohen that appeared in Science, one of the world’s preeminent scientific journals. In that article, Cohen and his colleagues reported that the self-affirming intervention, which we studied here, cut achievement gaps between Black and white students by 40%. I was amazed that such a brief intervention, consisting of four 15-minute writing activities, could have such powerful effects. My thinking was that if self-affirmation can close achievement gaps so effectively, then we should be doing this in every school across the country. My first effort toward making that happen was to test whether we could achieve similar results supporting the school success of students of color across an entire school district. 

Q: Your paper points out that when a Black student has been involved in prior disciplinary incidents, they are more likely to be labeled a troublemaker by the teacher and punished more quickly and harshly than similar white students. Can you talk about why this happens?

A: The answer is not a simple one — it happens as sort of a chain reaction or vicious cycle of breakdowns in teacher-student relationships. In this cycle, teachers are motivated by the basic goals of teaching and inspiring their students. At the same time, harmful and widespread stereotypes in our society cause teachers to cast Black students as potential troublemakers. These implicit and explicit biases are fueled by the same stereotypes that were the underlying causes for the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others at the hands of the police.

Teachers worry that Black students could prevent them from achieving their teaching goals and are quick to attribute any perceived misbehavior among Black students as enduring features of their identities that need to be addressed. When Black students have been involved in prior disciplinary incidents, these stereotypes and teachers’ reactions to them are further amplified. In turn, teachers sanction Black students more frequently and more harshly than other students in the hope that doing so will preserve order in their classrooms.

From the student perspective, Black students come to school valuing education and aspiring to learn and develop. But they also worry that teachers are biased against them and will treat them unfairly. When Black students are punished, it provides confirmation that their teachers really are unfair and are undermining their educational goals and values. This confirmation of their fears of bias eventually means that they lose trust in their teachers, feel like they don’t fit in at school, and experience threats to their sense of identity as a good student. These reactions by Black students, which we call “social-identity threats,” can then lead the students to further misbehave, which in turn reinforces teachers’ beliefs that the students are troublemakers and results in additional harsh disciplinary tactics.

The cycle repeats and escalates with additional teacher-student encounters, and students’ identities as “troublemakers” become more deeply entrenched over time in the minds of both teachers and the students themselves. Because Black students face the “double jeopardy” of being both stereotyped as troublemakers and being more frequently disciplined than other student groups, they are uniquely at risk to experience this vicious cycle during middle school.

Q: What does your intervention look like, and what kinds of impacts did it have?

A: This intervention involves only four 15-minute writing activities that students engage in during an English language arts or homeroom class. The intervention also builds on decades of social-psychological theory and research concerning self-affirmation. Students engage in the series of expressive writing exercises, which ask students to reflect on positive aspects of their identities less associated with the troublemaker label in school. Self-affirmation theory suggests that people are motivated to maintain a positive overall self-view. When our self-competence is threatened, it helps to have opportunities to reflect on sources of self-worth, like being a good friend to others, enjoying sports, being creative or having a sense of humor, that are beyond the threatened aspect of the self — in this case, being stereotyped as a troublemaker in school. Those opportunities to reflect on positive identities that are valued can buffer students from the threat and help restore an overall outlook that one is good, successful and able to control important life outcomes.

The self-affirmation intervention helps provide Black students with psychological resources to manage social identity threats and contend with internalized racial oppression — or the psychological appropriation of prevailing biases and stereotypes in society. Self-affirmation can buffer students from these threats by allowing them to concentrate on their positive identities rather than internalizing racial oppression and seeing themselves as troublemakers. This shift in identity focus may help break one link in the vicious cycle of apprehension, mistrust and punishment Black students endure in our nation’s schools.

By virtue of being both stereotyped as guilty and receiving a disproportionate number of suspensions, Black students are labeled as troublemakers, lose trust in their teachers and grow defensive. Our findings suggest that changes induced by self-affirmation help Black students more readily navigate the threats and injustices that they encounter in school and less often fall victim to the vicious cycle of mistrust, thus substantially reducing suspensions by way of decreases in the total number of office disciplinary referrals they receive.

Overall, the results were pretty amazing. Across all 11 of the middle schools in the Madison Metropolitan School District, our intervention cut the Black-white suspension and office disciplinary-referral gaps during seventh and eighth grade by about two-thirds, with even greater impacts for Black students with prior infractions. The fact that we had consistent impacts across two independent cohorts of seventh graders was also very exciting.

Q: Another interesting aspect of your research is that it is a double-blind, randomized experiment conducted in real classrooms and schools across a midsize urban school district in the Midwest. Can you tell us how that worked?

A: We used the most rigorous and respected form of scientific inquiry for assessing cause and effect — the same method used to assess the efficacy of life-saving medical treatments: a large-scale randomized controlled trial. In our trial, like most medical trials, we used a double-blind methodology. In a medical trial of a new drug, for instance, this means that both the consulting physician and the patient are unaware of whether each person participating in the randomized trial got assigned to receive the new treatment or a placebo. Similarly, neither the teachers handing out the writing exercises to students nor the students themselves knew which exercises were treatments and which were placebos. In this way, because teachers were unaware of each student’s treatment condition, we can be certain that teachers did not interact with students differently solely because of theory treatment status. Likewise, we can sure that the intervention itself rather than students’ knowledge of whether they got the self-affirming treatment or not was the factor that caused the improvements we saw.

Unlike a placebo or sugar pill versus an efficacious new drug, in our situation the randomly assigned treatment students wrote about valued self-affirming aspects of their identities, while the randomly assigned control students wrote about why others might value things that they do not personally value. The most frequent thing that treatment students wrote about was the importance of their friends and family. Control students, on the other hand, did not particularly value politics but most often wrote about why upcoming elections or politics in general might be important to their parents or other adults.  

Q: How would this scale on a national level where some of the demographics of schools and districts might be different?

A: There were some pretty substantial differences across the 11 diverse schools that participated in Madison. What’s interesting is that the impacts were pretty much the same across every school. We are excited to see if we find the same consistent results in other school districts.

In other recent work, we found that our intervention that helped students navigate the difficult transition from elementary to middle school did in fact replicate. We found great results on school outcomes previously in a districtwide Madison-based study and duplicated those results here in the Paradise Valley Unified School District. This provides some optimism that we can help students in other places beyond the current study.

Q: Where does your research go from here?

A: This intervention focuses on students and helps Black students, in particular, contend with our society’s biases and injustices. Just because we can make things a bit better for students of color certainly does not mean that we should ignore the role that teachers and schools play in disproportionately sanctioning Black kids. Our next steps are to combine the power of the self-affirmation intervention with a teacher-based intervention that Jason Okonofua, a professor from the University of California, Berkeley, has successfully fielded. Dr. Okonofua’s brief online intervention modules suggests that “a teacher who makes his or her students feel heard, valued and respected shows them that school is fair and they can grow and succeed there.” These ideas are reinforced through stories from students, helping encourage teachers to use empathic discipline, which involves attempting to understand the root causes for misbehavior while maintaining trusting student-teacher relationships. This intervention, consisting of two online modules totaling 70 minutes, halved the number of suspensions for Black students in intervention teachers’ classrooms and also improved relationships between teachers and students.

Dr. Okonofua and I believe that by combining the two interventions — as a holistic model — we can intervene on this preventable chain of events typically peaking in middle school, with teachers engaging in frequent and unusually harsh punitive responses to Black students’ perceived misbehavior. Our holistic solution can empower teachers to develop empathic mindsets around discipline while also buffering Black students from internalizing the troublemaker identity imposed on them. This approach can develop a clear and powerful path to impact. Our proposed solution can initially improve teacher-student interactions, subsequently reducing suspensions, which, in turn, can prevent school dropout and ultimately dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.  

Top photo by Dids from Pexels.

Marshall Terrill
marshall.terrill@asu.edu