Eye-tracking technology shows that preschool teachers have implicit bias against black boys

Students raise their hands in a pre-kindergarten classroom.
(Al Sieb / Los Angeles Times)

For African American boys, the presumption of guilt starts before they have entered a kindergarten classroom, new research shows.

In a study presented Wednesday to a meeting of education policy officials, researchers found that pre-K educators who were prompted to expect trouble in a classroom trained their gaze significantly longer on black students, especially boys, than they did on white students.

When asked which of four videotaped children — a boy and girl who were black and a pair who were white — required their closest attention, educators black and white alike chose the study’s African American boy most frequently. The study’s white boy came in a distant second and two girls — one white and one black — drew the least scrutiny from the teachers.


But when subjects in the new study were asked to rate the severity of a child’s disruptive behavior and recommend consequences for it, race played a more unexpected role: African American pre-K educators, the study found, judged misbehavior attributed to a black child more harshly than did white educators. And they were more inclined to recommend the child’s suspension or expulsion from the classroom.

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The new research, conducted by psychologist Walter S. Gilliam and colleagues at Yale University’s Child Study Center, set out to explore the biases, many of them operating beneath a teacher’s awareness, that may drive a troubling pattern in elementary and secondary schools across the nation: that African American students are suspended or expelled at more than twice the rate of children of any other ethnicity.

At the pre-K level, Gilliam found an even starker pattern in 2005. In state-funded pre-K classrooms, 3- and 4-year-olds were being kicked out of school three times as often as older students. And black children — boys mostly — were about twice as likely as Latino and white children to be expelled.

This nursery-school “push-out phenomenon” does more than inconvenience parents and give naughty children a time-out away from classmates: Many researchers suspect it sets up a child early for school failure by eroding his engagement with teachers and classmates and sending the message that the student cannot be redeemed.

At an annual conference of early care and education professionals, the authors of the new study recruited 132 pre-K educators (67% white, 22% black and 68% of them classroom teachers). First, researchers told the subjects they were trying to understand how teachers detect the first signs of troublesome behavior. Then, they used eye-tracking technology to measure the amount of time that subjects focused their attention on each of four children playing and working together on a videotape — a white boy, a black boy, a white girl and a black girl.


As a group, the teachers spent more time watching the videotaped activity of the black male student than any of the others. And black teachers were even more vigilant about their young black charges than were white teachers: Compared to white study participants, black subjects spent more time gazing at black boys and less time gazing at other children.

In the study’s second part, educators read vignettes detailing a child’s pattern of extremely disruptive behavior. The researchers manipulated teachers’ beliefs about the child’s gender and race using different names, such as DeShawn or Latoya to suggest a black boy or girl, and Jake and Emily to suggest a white boy or girl. On a five-point scale, the educators then rated the severity of the misbehavior and the likelihood that they would recommend suspension or expulsion.

Here, Gilliam and his colleague found a surprising trend: Black educators were sterner in their judgment of such disruptive behavior on the part of a black child than if it was attributed to a white child. The study’s white educators rated the severity of the child’s disruptive behavior very low when they believed the student was black, and judged it more severely when they believed the child was white.

This pattern, said Gilliam, suggests two very different assumptions about race and child behavior on the part of white and black educators. While black educators upheld stern — perhaps unrealistically stern — expectations of black preschoolers’ behavior, he said, the white educators seemed to have far lower expectations.

In assessing black children’s misbehavior, white educators almost seemed to accept “that this was normal behavior, and this was not normal behavior,” said Gilliam. These “shifting standards,” said Gilliam, are a pernicious cause of what researchers call “implicit bias.”

Further racial differences emerged when the subjects were asked to read a statement about the misbehaving child’s home and family situation — a grim recitation of absent father, overworked mother, few resources and a chaotic household.

When white teachers read the background statement and believed it described a white child’s situation, their judgment of the child’s prospects of overcoming disadvantage was kinder and more positive than were their judgments when they thought the child in question was black.

When black teachers read the background statement and believed it described a black child’s situation, they judged the child’s prospects more kindly than when they thought the child in question was white.

Across the divide of “us” and “them,” said Gilliam, lies a racial empathy gap that needs to be overcome.

“We need to help them feel like these children and families are their children and families,” said Gilliam. Children, and especially African American children, can be helped by policies and practices aimed in many directions, he added.

Programs that seek to raise teachers’ awareness of their implicit biases and counter them are important, said Gilliam. But practices that increase their empathy for all students will help too, as would any measures that reduce overall stress and chaos in preschool classrooms.

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