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Forget Implicit Bias, Let’s Talk about Explicit Bias in Education

Last month I kicked off a training on ways to use language as an asset to unleash the critical thinking potential of English learners with a question: Why do so many educators struggle to teach critical thinking to English learners? This is a question I’ve posed to thousands of educators over the last three years. Why don’t we teach critical thinking to students who are academically behind their peers, students in special education, students who aren’t a part of gifted, honors or International Baccalaureate programs? And if we were playing “Family Feud,” the number one answer to this question is almost always implicit bias. The idea that educators often hold onto negative stereotypes that unconsciously impact their actions in negative ways, even when they have seemingly good intentions. But what if implicit bias isn’t the problem at all? What if the issue is really explicit bias? I have been trying to write this piece for a few months, but it has been hard to keep up with all of the outrageous examples of explicit racism in education today. Teachers in Idaho who gleefully posed for pictures dressed as the U.S. Border Wall and offensive depictions of Mexicans. The awful story of the teacher who cut one Native American student’s hair while calling another student a “Bloody Indian.” And of course the video that went viral of the wrestling referee that insisted a student cut his locks before competing. These were just the latest in a string of overtly racist acts from educators. But these events are not outliers. They are a natural consequence of the explicit bias we see in education every single day. Explicit bias explains how a school administrator can say, with a straight face, that the reason only 8 percent of her students are proficient in math and 13 percent are proficient in reading is that her students are simply poor and their parents just don’t care. Explicit bias explains why an educator whose school invested in rigorous and engaging curriculum for her students crosses out the “too hard” problems in her lesson plans because her mostly Latinx students are “too low.” Explicit bias explains why a study by Vanderbilt University professors found that even with identical test scores, White students were twice as likely as African-American students to be selected for gifted programs. Explicit bias underlies the troubling conclusion from TNTP’s Opportunity Myth report that “classrooms that served predominantly students from higher-income backgrounds spent twice as much time on grade-appropriate assignments and five times as much time with strong instruction, compared to classrooms with predominantly students from low-income backgrounds.” These aren’t some deep-down inside, subconscious, “I had no idea I what was doing” beliefs. These are actual actions of explicit bias that occur every day and carry far more drastic consequences than the occasional viral picture or Facebook post of racist teachers. And these every day actions of explicit bias are equally, if not more deserving of our outrage because these have real consequences for our children. So before we think about scheduling more trainings on implicit bias and culturally responsive teaching, we must ask ourselves two painful, but necessary questions: How are we explicitly biased against our children and what are we going to do to change this?
Colin Seale
Colin Seale is the founder/CEO of thinkLaw, an award-winning resource that helps educators teach critical thinking to all students using real-life legal cases and the president of the Charter School Association of Nevada. His new book

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