A New Bias: The Poverty Problem
In the simplest terms, bias is defined as the brain taking a shortcut to reduce cognitive load. Our brains learn by making associations.
As the human brain evolved, the brain automatically associated things that are disproportionally connected in our environments. For example, when teachers review test data, if a subpopulation consistently underperforms, eventually, when the educator sees a student from that subgroup, their brains will associate them with poor academic performance. The mind is attempting to eliminate steps, so you don't have to focus on frequently correlated things. The problem arises when the brain makes an association that you don't want because it can detrimentally bias conscious thoughts.
Teachers are aware there is a higher occurrence of low-academic performance, behavioral problems, and poor decision making among low-income students. They are also aware that Blacks and Hispanics living in America are more likely to live in poverty. According to the 2017 census, Blacks are more than twice as likely as Whites to live below the poverty line. Many economic policies instituted after slavery restricted economic opportunities for Blacks. Today, two-thirds of Black children will experience poverty. The result is the subconscious association of Blacks to poverty.
The patterns associated with poverty in America have created a new bias in the school setting. It is difficult for teachers to see a Black student and not subconsciously associate them with the behaviors commonly exhibited by low socioeconomic students, and research confirms this.
The association will prime teachers' brains to expect poor academic performance, inappropriate behavior, and poor decision making. Researchers have concluded there is no other explanation for some of the disproportionate representation of Black students in educational data other than implicit bias.
For example, Black preschoolers are 3.6 times more likely than White preschoolers to receive one or more suspensions. When you consider that Black children comprise only 19 percent of preschool enrollment but receive 47 percent of preschooler suspensions, you begin to understand why some researchers believe implicit bias is the root cause.
Some explain the gap in student performance as simply race related. However, race alone cannot explain the disproportionate academic and behavioral outcomes experienced by most children of color. I am not saying race is not a contributing factor. In America, we have compounded the issues of race to be so closely tied to the problems of the poor that we have falsely attributed them to people of color.
While schools continue to focus on the achievement gap between White and Black students, they have missed a salient point. The income-achievement gap has widened substantially over the last 25 years. However, the emergence of a Black middle class and its academic performance illustrates that race does not inherently cause poor school outcomes.
The issue is that so many Blacks are included in the income gap; it goes unnoticed that it is not a racial gap but an economic gap. The historical pattern of poverty associated with people of color in America produces the bias of seeing someone of color and subconsciously associating them with a wide range of behaviors commonly connected with the poor. Later this week, I will address these issues and what we can do about them to help all students achieve during my EDVIEW360 webinar, “The Poverty Problem—The Impact of Poverty on Learning and the Brain.” The presentation is part of Voyager Sopris Learning’s Social Emotional Webinar Series, and I’ll be giving each registrant a free poster and the chance to win a copy of one of my books.
What can educators easily do?
Teachers can help students examine the sociopolitical context
- Introduce students to the social and political events that historically explain the world to help them understand a rational explanation for the inequalities we see today. If students examine the sociopolitical context that created patterns of wealth and poverty—they might conclude that social climate and political policies created such inequity that, understandably, more Blacks are poor.
- Biases come from patterns, and the human brain seeks to rationalize what it sees. The attempt to bring meaning void of assessing sociopolitical context to understand social patterns can produce incorrect conclusions. Evidence of erroneously held findings is clear today when describing the poor: Those people are lazy, lack drive, or do not have the intellectual capacity to help themselves. The institution of education plays a significant role in shaping the process of how students think. Should we teach students to only identify what is evident, or should we teach them to examine why the patterns in our society exist?
Teachers can modify the curriculum
- Bias research reveals that when we look at someone from a different race, our brain tends to put them in an outgroup category, which subconsciously diminishes empathy. However, when we admire someone from an outgroup, the brain's capacity for empathy is restored.
- Educators need to ensure school curriculums are inclusive of societal contributions made by people representative of the entire school population. Help students to learn that many of the significant advancements that shaped America were made by a diverse representation of its citizens. This simple modification to the curriculum will help students learn to admire people who don't look like them, increasing empathy across the racial divide.
I hope you’ll join me later this week on Wednesday, Jan. 13, for my EDVIEW360 presentation, “The Poverty Problem—The Impact of Poverty on Learning and the Brain,” where I will address these issues and what we can do about them to help all students achieve.