A new study from diversity consultancy Oranui, ‘Unconscious Bias in Education,’ has revealed how teachers’ low expectations have led to decades of under-achievement by Maori students.
‘Pygmalion Effect’ is a term coined by researchers during the 1960s and updated during the 1990s to describe how teachers’ expectations of students largely determine students’ educational achievement.
In this study, we have compared Maori and African American students’ experience and found very similar patterns.
Teachers in both countries have low expectations of these groups of children. As a result, Maori and African-American children lag well behind other groups at school.
Maori children face significant barriers to achievement, which stem from negative stereotypes attached to Maori as a social group. Personal and interpersonal racism, and institutional racism, work together to perpetuate Maori disadvantage in almost all spheres.
United States literature shows that gaps in achievement between individuals and across socio-economic and racial groups open up at a very young age, before children start school. The gaps that emerge at a young age continue into adulthood.
African-American children enter kindergarten behind white children, and these achievement gaps persist at every grade level, and for every subject. Children who are deprived of the opportunity to learn through poverty and lack of education of their parents do not perform well at school.
After accounting for these socio-economic factors, there is still a significant achievement gap between African-American children and other groups.
Like Maori children, we argue that this can be attributed to bias on behalf of teachers.
Unconscious bias, a framework which we present in our report as a much-needed pathway out of the mire, suggests that bias is a natural human characteristic, socialised into us by a complex mishmash of cultural messaging.
We have affinity with people who are like us and more difficulty building relationships with people we do not understand. It is the law of attraction.
Teachers’ bias towards Maori and African American children is unconscious.
By and large they do not consciously set out to discriminate against these students. Teachers simply find it easier to relate to children who are like them from the same ethnic group.
In New Zealand, a hierarchy has developed. Recent research shows that teachers have highest expectations of Asian students, followed by Pakeha, Pasifika, and finally Maori. To mitigate the impact of these biases, the starting point for change then is for teachers to understand their own biases, and mitigate their impact on decision- making and interactions with students.
Solutions to unconscious bias have been trialled in other countries.
In the US, successful interventions have been developed, which take the form of training and development programmes.
The most successful of the programmes developed empathy in white Americans for African-Americans through a series of association exercises.
The exercises helped white Americans unpack stereotypes that they had about African-Americans, and replace these stereotypes with more positive perceptions. The tests also helped the white Americans understand what it is like to be a minority group.
In this report, we have focused on education but unconscious bias impacts Maori in almost all spheres.
It is, however, absolutely possible to change the situation.
Recognising how unconscious bias influences teachers’ relationships with Maori students is the key to lifting Maori educational achievement. Tools and programmes to address unconscious bias towards Maori should be developed and applied broadly in the full range of education, health and social service sectors.
A ‘Whole of Systems Approach’ is required.
Anton Blank is Director, Oranui and Principal Investigator of ‘Unconscious Bias in Education,’ a Report released in Wellington on July 13, 2016.