On the Ed Beat: Uncovering biases in schools

The lowdown: Bias in schools

In September, Education Week reporter Sarah Sparks visited a school district in Colorado that is one of the 1,400 districts across the country that are under compliance agreements with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to correct systemic discrimination based on race, sex, disability or other characteristics. 

In her story, Sparks reported that there are thousands of other districts across the country with achievement gaps and discipline disparities that aren’t being investigated by the government. Bias is not always explicit, she found. Implicit biases are unconscious — a mental association with a stereotype connected to a person’s race, gender or other characteristic. 

Researchers have found that school staff members are most likely to act on their implicit biases when they have to make a quick decision about how to apply school rules and to whom. And teachers who feel stressed are more likely to criticize students in racially or gender-stereotyped ways, Sparks wrote. Black students, for example, are more likely than white students to be punished for “defiance” or “insubordination,” the article states. 

Student journalists can find out if their district is being investigated by the Office of Civil Rights by visiting the OCR’s website, which has letters about the investigation that were sent to each district: 

There isn’t a function to search by a district’s name, but Sparks recommends doing a general search on the site with the district name and the keyword ‘OCR.’ If students think their district has an issue but can’t find reports online, they can contact their regional OCR office or the district itself.

If there’s no formal investigation pending, student journalists can still uncover biases. Sparks recommends requesting several data points for your school and district: graduation rates, grade retention, absences, extracurricular activities and school offices held. School districts should have this data broken down by several categories: race, gender, poverty, disabilities, and so on. Compare the demographics of each category to the school as a whole. If they don’t match up, it’s a yellow flag, Sparks said — a sign that the potential for bias is there. 

Read Sarah Sparks’ story on disparities in schools. Then take a test about your own implicit bias. 

Think about it

  • Everybody has biases. Think about the ones you might have or have seen in others. If those biases were acted on, how could they affect students’ success at school?
  •  Look around your school. Are there different demographic breakdowns than in the school as a whole in certain classes? How about in detention?
  • Think about some of the common school rules. Are the reasons for those rules easy to understand? Do they further a real education goal? And are the punishments proportional to the rulebreaking?
  • Was it easy or difficult to find out your school’s demographic information for categories like graduation rates, grade retention, absences or suspensions? Do you think the average parent or student knows how to find that information? What would that data tell them about your school?
  • Is your student newspaper effectively covering these stories of biases? Could your staff be unaware of how some biases play out?

Own the story

Student journalists, Sparks said, often already know of biases that exist at their school. After they request data from the districts, they should take a hard look at their school and the district as a whole.

“Do certain classes — AP classes, special education classes, even the detention class after school — have different racial or gender compositions than the school as a whole?” Sparks said.  

Student reporters should also request school rules and policies — like dress codes — and the demographic breakdown of who is punished. Schools might try to withhold data about discipline on the grounds of student confidentiality, but that is almost never a legally correct answer at a public school. Statistics about discipline are not confidential student records. If the school releases records showing that 25 girls and 10 boys were suspended for dress-code violations, that does not reveal anything harmful about any specific student. If your school does claim that the records are confidential, contact the Student Press Law Center to see whether the decision can be appealed.

Sparks recommends students talk to people like guidance counselors who can describe how they implement school rules and processes. 

“Often bias reveals itself in the way people individually apply rules and procedures,” she said. “Talk to teachers, yes, but also talk to the staff that people don’t often talk to: paraprofessionals, cafeteria workers, janitors.”

A public agency (including a school or a school district) is required by state law to honor requests for public records. A school does not have to provide verbal or written answers to questions, but it must provide access to any existing records that fit the request. So, while you cannot demand that a school district go through every student’s files to count the number of dress-code suspensions, you can require a school to produce those counts if they already exist (which they should). A proper public-records request will be phrased as a request for documents (“produce all records showing the number of suspensions and the racial and gender breakdown of the students suspended”) and not a request to answer questions. 

Tips from a pro

Sparks said it can be difficult to report on biases and discrimination when you’ve never experienced it. Talk to students of other races and income levels, she said.

And recognize that everyone has bias and most of it is subconscious, Sparks said. 

“The best way to torpedo any interview is to go in asking someone if he or she is a raving racist/sexist/etc,” she said. “Ask them about specific, concrete numbers and events, and let those facts speak for you.” 

If your sources don’t give you specific data points, remember that the majority of this information is public. To make the records-request process easier, use the Student Press Law Center’s Public Records Letter Generator.

Sparks urges students to dig deeper during interviews and keep asking why. 

“There are a lot of easy answers to tough questions, and you should keep digging when you get them,” she said. “If someone explains a gap by saying something like, ‘Oh, these students are troublemakers/don’t care as much about school/don’t have enough support at home,’ question that. Think through, ‘If that’s NOT the reason, what else could explain it?’”

Read Sarah Sparks’ story on disparities in schools.