What if anti-black bias is a quality not just of some teachers, but of communities?

Stanford assistant professor of education Dr. Francis A. PearmanIn a conversation with the SDP network, Stanford assistant professor of education Dr. Francis A. Pearman zooms out to examine the schism between black and white student performance at a larger scale.

Anti-Black bias is an important focal point in the discussion of the root causes of educational inequality. Much of the emerging bias research focuses on how teachers interact with students of color. Yet less is known about how anti-black bias plays out at a larger scale within a community. Do rates of community bias translate into achievement disparities between Black and White students?

These questions pose the motivation behind research that Dr. Francis A. Pearman, Assistant Professor of Education in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, recently presented to the SDP network.

“Teachers have been shown to be promising recipients for bias intervention programs*, but an exclusive focus on teachers can miss other explanations for how and why anti-Black bias matters for issues of educational inequality,” noted Pearman. “Yet in the past it’s been difficult to study anti-Black bias at scale because the data hasn’t been there.”

Dr. Pearman’s paper titled “Collective Racial Bias and the Black-White Test Score Gap” examines the relationship between estimated rates of explicit and implicit racial bias and Black-White test score gaps at the county level, in counties across the United States. By combining data from over 1 million nationwide respondents who completed an online version of the Race Implicit Association Test (the same instrument used in David Quinn’s achievement gap discourse research) with data covering over 300 million test scores from U.S. students in grades 3-8, Pearman’s work zooms out to examine how mechanisms of bias play out in relationship to performance, and at scale.

Bias leads to performance disparities, but how?

Pearman’s research found that counties with higher levels of racial bias did in fact feature larger disparities in test scores between Black and White students. These associations were on par with other predictors of racial test score gaps such as racial gaps in family income and racial gaps in single parenthood. After digging further to explain the relationship between aggregate rates of racial bias and test score disparities, however, Pearman ruled out some intuitive factors.

“Black/White funding disparities actually provided no predictive explanation for the relation between bias and differences in test scores,” noted Pearman. “Additionally, racial differences in access to Pre-K enrollment was also ruled out as a factor.”

Far more predictive of the relationship between bias and test score disparities was how students are sorted within and across schools. Namely, Black students are sorted into gifted and talented programs at lower rates and into special education programs at higher rates than their White counterparts in counties with higher levels of racial bias. Moreover, schools in these counties are typically more segregated than schools elsewhere.

“There is evidence to suggest that there’s an opportunity gap for black students in being identified for gifted and talented programs,” explained Pearman. “Though the ways in which students are chosen for these programs vary greatly, we do know that racial disparities in parental advocacy and in how schools perceive that advocacy play a role.” Teachers often play a prominent role as well in nominating students for advanced coursework, leaving many Black students overlooked due to teacher biases.

Additionally, Black students are more frequently selected for special education programs. “This finding is particularly pernicious because it’s really hard to get rid of a special education designation,” Pearman continued. “It essentially becomes a scarlet letter for some students early in their education, and oftentimes there are no clear mechanisms to re-evaluate students to see if they are, in fact, in need of special education services.”

Between-school segregation also explains some of the relationship between collective racial bias and test score disparities. Counties with elevated racial bias often have more segregated schools, leaving Black students with an increased likelihood of attending school with other Black students and increasingly underexposed to White students.

Addressing systemic issues, systemically

When it comes to minimizing anti-black bias in schools, Pearman suggests that we not only focus on reducing bias, but also on minimizing how biases can influence results. “We need to be thinking about reducing the extent to which discretionary decisions can produce inequalities,” he explained. “Putting legislation or policies in place that de-emphasize subjective decision making have helped reduce the ability to act out our biases in other ways in our communities.” These suggestions align with Dr. David Quinn’s research, presented to SDP last October, that rubrics may serve as a bias check in teachers’ evaluations of student performance.

Since Pearman’s research unearthed inequities in the sorting of black students disproportionately out of gifted and talented programs, he offered universal gifted and talented testing as an example of a bias-reducing policy in education. “While mechanisms of universal testing can vary in terms of quality, a universal testing approach can reduce the impact of anti-black bias in the sorting process by uncovering students who wouldn’t have otherwise surfaced as a candidate for gifted and talented programs.”

Other policy examples he included are:

  • Title IX-inspired policies ensuring black and white students in the same district have equal access to advanced coursework. “High school is probably too late for this,” he elaborated. “This conversation should take place throughout the educational pipeline.”
  • Widespread adoption of ethnic studies programs and culturally-responsive teaching practices.
  • Creation of accountability standards, third-party audits, and annual reassessments around special education placement.
  • Innovative school desegregation plans that advance school diversity.
  • Abolition of “carceral pedagogies,” or ways of teaching that emphasize compliance over engagement.


Click here to read Dr. Pearman’s full research paper.


*For more on this, check out this paper on an empathy intervention to reduce implicit bias in pre-service teachers and this paper on an intervention that cut adolescent suspension rates in half.