This story is part of the series black iowa – still unequal?
Unconscious bias hurting black students in Iowa schools
Alexis Noring, a student teacher at East High School in Des Moines, was helped by a Des Moines program that encourages and recruits more minority teachers to metro schools. Rodney White/The Register
Across Iowa, 22 percent of the state's roughly 481,000 students in Iowa public schools are now minorities, and their numbers continue to grow.
Yet, 98 percent of the state's teachers are white.
It's a massive imbalance that school districts are all too familiar with, and it's one of the major factors behind a problem that educators say is troubling many schools — unconscious bias.
It can happen among even the most well-meaning teachers, in the most achievement-oriented classes and at the most diverse schools.
Experts say that unconscious bias isn’t limited to any one race, gender, color or creed, nor is it necessarily malicious or mean-spirited — although that does happen.
“As one scholar put it, it’s like a smog that we all breathe in and we all breathe out,” said Daniel Spikes, an assistant professor at Iowa State University, of the endemic nature of racism. “If that is true, which I believe to be true … then either what you’re doing is passively perpetuating it, or you’re actively fighting against it.”
Many individuals just aren’t aware of how their personal experiences have shaped their view of the world, he said. Or, among teachers, how their views influence their actions and attitudes in the classroom.
But for teachers already in the classroom, experts say training is needed to help educators recognize their bias, which is “filtered through” their own experiences, said Isaiah McGee, Des Moines Public Schools' equity coordinator.
If that bias goes unrecognized, “you’ll see a disconnect” in the classroom.
One solution is requiring “cultural competency” training of teachers, which Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines, D-Des Moines, has championed each legislative session.
The training is now voluntary in most districts. It helps teachers know how to make their classroom more inclusive by making small changes in daily lessons and activities, such as providing examples with individuals of multiple races and backgrounds.
She also discusses how to respond to uncomfortable situations, such as when a black student uses a racial slur, which Gaines said is inappropriate, regardless of the student’s race. Or when a black student accuses a white teacher of racism, despite no evidence.
She believes that requiring training for new or renewing licensure will spread the effort.
“I think it needs to be mandatory,” she said. “It wouldn’t change what they teach. It would change how they teach it.”
Teachers must know how to respond in the moment. Otherwise, their silence can be perceived as implicit consent. But if they respond too harshly, that can have an impact, too.
Other times, experts said, biases appear in what’s left unsaid. Some students report teachers ignoring racial slurs used by students — or failing to push students to see their full potential.
“Lack of action can be just as bad as action,” Spikes said.
Des Moines, where minorities comprise more than half of all students, is requiring cultural competency training for its staff. The goal is to give all employees a basic level of understanding.
Additional efforts include creating two in-depth, master's-level courses for a degree program at Drake University, which Des Moines teachers can take for little or no cost.
“It’s a huge change,” McGee said. “I know there is a need for this statewide, and I know there is a lack of expertise in the area."
Recruiting diverse teachers
Two new Des Moines programs also encourage and recruit more minority teachers.
One focuses on middle and high school students who are interested in becoming educators. Dream to Teach mentors students about the profession, as well as the college application process, from campus visits to test prep.
In addition, students learn about what being a teacher is like, such as leading their own classroom lesson or reflecting on school dynamics.
At Weeks Middle School on a spring day, nine students of different minority backgrounds said they’ve seen how students respond to teachers differently because of their race.
"The person comes from the same background as you, so you’re comfortable saying things to them,” said seventh-grader Torrence Hall-Biggs, who is black and Asian. “They’re relatable.”
Eighth-grader Neleh Lozano said that if she becomes a teacher, she already has thought about making her classroom more accepting. She has been bullied “because of who I am,” she said. “I want to change that.”
“If I ever become a teacher, my first speech will be: ‘I don’t care about your race, if you’re fat or skinny, if you’re bi, lesbian or gay,’” said Neleh, whose ethnicity is black, Hispanic, Asian and Indian. “'You’re just my student.’"
A key aspect of the program is breaking financial barriers to college, and high school mentors work with students on applying for scholarships, said Sarai Tillinghast, who is black and coordinates the program.
“We’re really here to be a support system for those students who are interested in being teachers,” she said. “At the end of the day, we really want them to come back and teach in Des Moines public.”
Encouraging shift to teaching
Another effort is the 3D program, which supports minority employees who want to pursue a second career as a teacher.
The joint partnership between Des Moines Public Schools, Des Moines Area Community College and Drake University includes mentorship, from applying for grants and student aid to coaching participants on interview skills. Des Moines promises an interview to those who finish, but does not guarantee hiring.
“It’s a wonderful collaboration,” said Jeri Moritz, director of teacher development in Des Moines Public Schools. “We’re creating a pipeline of teacher development from within, with staff who really want to be teachers.”
In an English class at East High School, student teacher Alexis Noring led a reflective exercise on the book “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Noring was among the first to complete the 3D program when she graduated in May, a goal she has been working toward for six years. While she’s not an employee of Des Moines Public Schools — she works in insurance — the program welcomed her to participate.
She has thought about the difference she can make, after noticing how her own children don’t have many black teachers to look up to.
“That’s what really drove it home for me,” she said.