Racial Bias in Parent Communication

Several months ago I completed a quick online test from Project Implicit that was designed to measure implicit stereotyping and biases. The process was really thought-provoking and it led to several good conversations with colleagues about how we interact with students. One thing that I hadn’t considered at the time was how dramatically an educator’s biases also impact interactions with parents. And then I read an article this week about a research study completed in 2002 (with a sample size of approximately 10,000 public school 10th graders) which demonstrated how significantly our own racial biases shape how, when, and why we communicate with the parents of our students. Some of the results were both fascinating and disturbing:

  • Among students with reported behavioral problems, teachers were much more likely to reach out to black and Latino parents, than white parents.
  • Math teachers more frequently contacted parents of color than did English teachers.
  • Teachers were less likely to contact Asian parents about academic and behavioral struggles as compared to black and Latino parents.

The study controlled for several of the things that I initially assumed would have been causing the discrepancy, including students’ conduct in the classroom, academic work, and perception of parents’ English proficiency. What it seems to come down to is that people simply have inherent biases that impact how we communicate.

When talking with a group of colleagues about the issue, we all agreed that there are no easy answers. Bringing up the topic of unintentional bias, having thoughtful conversations about our own biases, and looking at the data from our classrooms and our schools will be a steps in the right direction. One colleague mentioned the benefit of having protocols in place that inform how, why, and when we reach out to parents. Another mentioned that it might be helpful to bring these issues up in smaller group settings first – department or grade level meetings – instead of broaching the topic with an entire staff right away.

While there are many ideas that could work well as for how to pull it off, it’s clear that we have to do something to combat our biases. Being aware of them is an important first step. Looking at real data and having hard conversations about the things that influence how, when and why we communicate with parents will be helpful steps to increase awareness.

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