Using a sophisticated eye-tracking system, a sensor technology that follows and records the movement of a person’s gaze, Gilliam and the research team invited pre-k teachers to watch a dozen short video clips of preschoolers in typical classroom situations. Participants were asked how quickly and accurately they could detect challenging behaviors in the children—a black boy, black girl, white boy, and white girl—yet none of the videos contained misbehavior, and the children in the videos were all actors. What researchers found was that the preschool staff—both black and white teachers—more closely observed black youngsters, and especially black boys, when challenging behaviors were expected, “suggesting that preschool teachers may hold different expectations based on the race of the child,” said Gilliam.
In a second segment of the research, the same group of preschool educators were asked to read a paragraph detailing “unpredictable and challenging” classroom behaviors, ranging from difficulties napping and following instructions to blurting out answers and taunting other children. Each vignette contained a pre-selected, stereotypical black or white boy or girl name: DeShawn, Jake, Latoya, and Emily. The participants were then asked to rate the severity of the behavioral challenges—the only difference in each vignette was the perceived race and sex of the child—and the likelihood that they would recommend suspension or expulsion.
Of note, both black and white preschool educators—22 percent of the participants identified as black, 67 percent as white—showed strong evidence of implicit biases. However, the nature of the biases differed based on the race of the teacher. White teachers appeared to have lower expectations of black children, finding them as a group more prone to misbehavior, “so a vignette about a black child with challenging behaviors [was] not appraised as … unusual, severe, or out of the ordinary.”
Conversely, black teachers seemed to hold black preschoolers to a higher behavioral standard; pay notably more attention to the behaviors of black boys; and recommend harsher, more exclusionary discipline. Prior research suggests that teachers of all races tend to over-punish black students. Gilliam also points to research on black parents and their “need to prepare [black] children for, or protect them from, a harsh world” to help explain this tendency. “It seems possible that the black preschool teachers may be operating under similar beliefs … that black children require harsh assessment and discipline.” The study further finds the consequence is significant, as black early educators are more likely to teach in communities with higher proportions of black preschoolers: “Greater scrutiny of black students … may contribute to the increased likelihood of preschool expulsions and suspensions with black children, and black boys more specifically.”
Similarly, when the preschool educators learned the students’ family background, to offer some context for the “behavioral challenges,” the responses also diverged based on race. When the race of the teacher and the child were the same, there was greater empathy for the child; when the race of the teacher and the child differed, the additional family information led teachers to perceive the child’s behavior as more severe.