The Role Of Teacher Diversity In Reducing Implicit Bias

Last month, the Albert Shanker Institute released a report on the state of teacher diversity, which garnered  fair amount of press attention – see here, here, here, and here. (For a copy of the full report, see here.) This is the first of three posts, drawn from a research review published in the report, which help to explain why diversity in the teaching force—or lack thereof—is a major concern.

Since the mid-1980s, researchers have argued that the lack of teacher diversity serves to undermine democratic amity by reinforcing stereotypes and perpetuating existing social inequalities (see, for example, Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, 1986). A growing body of recent research serves to underscore this point.

A case in point is research on implicit bias, that is to say, unconscious judgments and opinions that arise through a system of mental processes that are so quick as to be imperceptible. But the fact that they are auto­matic and outside of conscious control can make them very hard to counter and correct for. Being influenced by cultural stereotypes is one of the more common forms of implicit bias. (For previous posts exploring the issue of implicit bias, see here, here and here.)

Stereotypes are cognitive associations between a group and a trait (or set of traits), such as women and nurtur­ing, men and leadership skills, African American males and aggression, etc. After frequent (and sometimes subtle) exposures from our social environments, these mental associations form automatically, even in the absence of conscious antipathies toward groups (Gaertner & Dovidio, 1986; Devine, 1989; Bargh, 1999; Dovidio & Gaertner, 2004; Greenwald & Krieger, 2006; Jost et al., 2009).

In 2009, researchers from Harvard and Yale (Paluck & Green, 2009) conducted a research review to determine what worked to reduce such prejudiced responses. They concluded that, although many popular programs remained unproven, experiments with cross-race contact and cooperation had yielded promising results. Sim­ilarly, a meta-analysis of more than 500 studies from the 1940s through 2000, including responses from more than 250,000 participants in 38 countries, showed that greater contact between groups was predictive of lower intergroup prejudice (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006; 2011).

In 2009, another group of researchers (Plant et al., 2009) explored the “Obama Effect,” examining what impact Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and the resulting high levels of counter-stereotypic exposure to an African-American authority figure, might have on participants of other races. They found “dramatically decreased levels of im­plicit anti-Black prejudice and stereotyping.” And, in 2012, a study reported positive outcomes for a “multi-fac­eted prejudice habit-breaking intervention to produce long-term reductions in implicit race bias.” Among the strategies employed by the researchers was “contact with counter-stereotypic others,” which provided grist for counter-stereotypic imaging and stereotype replacement (Devine et al., 2012).

Another study of particular relevance to a discussion on the effect of school staff diversity is from the field of cognitive neuroscience, which suggests that such cross-racial exposure has a more powerful effect on brain processes if it occurs in childhood. In this 2014 paper, researchers (Cloutier, Li & Correll, 2014) used brain scans to examine participants’ activity in the amygdala (a part of the brain associated with the fight-or-flight response that is thought to help process perceptual information related to external threats) in response to unfamiliar, out-of-group faces, particularly White responses to African-American faces. They found “strong support” to the idea that high levels of contact with minority groups during childhood may serve to attenuate unconscious biases in non­minority adults.

There is no question that schools play a crucial role in shaping the attitudes and beliefs of the nation's youth. Schools must do all they can to help students learn to live, work and thrive as citizens in an increasingly diverse society. Schools that are truly diverse, where students and staff from all cultural, racial and economic backgrounds are welcome, bring with them a host of social and cognitive benefits over and above what a diverse teaching force can bring. But, given the intractable nature of residential segregation, early exposure to a diverse teaching force represents an important first step. By changing the configuration of actors in the school setting, it is possible to influence who will interact with whom – and, in the process, disconfirm the preconceptions that undergird stereotypes and unconscious biases.