As a teacher trainer, Kate Gerson asks teachers to examine what she sees as unconscious racial bias as one of the ways to close the nation’s persistent achievement gap between whites and students of color, especially those who are poor.
Taking on the controversial issue of “implicit bias,” Gerson, 46, is a former English teacher who is now a managing partner of programs at the nonprofit UnboundEd, which trains educators to use free, high quality standards-aligned curriculum materials for all students. She has become vocal about the need for educators to reflect on their possible role in the achievement gap, based on current educational research.
She also draws on her previous experiences as a high school principal and teacher, and as an administrator in nonprofits where she trained aspiring school leaders and oversaw the development of New York State’s EngageNY Common Core-aligned curriculum and training.
Gerson considers standards-aligned curriculum adoption to be the first step in a two-step process that will lead to improved instruction for low-income students of color. The second step, she says, is changing teachers’ practices in ways that don’t hold low-performing students back and are culturally responsive to students’ diverse backgrounds.
Her message has so far reached thousands of educators who have attended UnboundEd’s “Standards Institutes” over the past three years around the country. At the most recent institute, held January in Los Angeles, Gerson issued a challenge to educators with a keynote address called, “Teaching and learning: Justice is found in the details.”
Previously, she laid out her perspectives in an opinion piece published last May, called: “We won’t break the status quo until we admit our own biases: Here are the research-based solutions.”
Gerson expanded on her ideas during a recent EdSource interview.
Q. What is unconscious bias?
A. It is implicit bias – the automatic and unconscious stereotypes that drive people to behave and make decisions in certain ways….There are studies about it showing up in education. One of the key ways it manifests is in an over-identification of students of color in suspensions at disproportionately higher rates, identification for gifted programs at disproportionately low rates, for advanced courses at disproportionately low rates, and for high level math classes at disproportionately low rates.
What happens is that teachers unconsciously stigmatize certain students. We have research about this. That stigmatization will modify how teachers teach, evaluate and advise their students. There is a correlation between that unconscious bias and student outcomes, based on work by Ron Ferguson and others…We are the system now. So if the system is treating students differently, then the grownups have to investigate how we all work together.
Q. How did you become interested in unconscious racial bias?
A. I became aware of racism when I was in my early 20s and studied cultural theory and African American history and literature and Caribbean post-colonial theory … and just came to have a clear understanding of a real hierarchy of oppression and a grand inequity that exists in our world and in our country in particular as it relates to race and to education – and knew that I wanted to be a part of making that system look and treat students completely differently than it does.
So the more I investigated that and unpacked it for myself and with colleagues over the years, I’ve come to understand the role of unconscious racial bias in all of us and it is really the only explanation that I can see for how tenacious the achievement gap is…A lot of it lies in our expectations and what we think is possible. Until we lean in and feel uncomfortable, we won’t really know what our students are capable of.
Q. What kinds of uncomfortable things are you talking about?
A. If all the work we need to do is an intersection of examining unconscious racial bias and examining the details of teaching and learning, it’s twofold. On one hand, we have to look at behaviors, habits, values, and practices that we’re attached to and look at what we’ve been doing and in many cases change our practices. That can require giving up things that feel very comfortable, needing to try something new.
All of us need to kind of lean into this new way of being, which is holding kids to a very different standard of rigor that’s at grade level regardless of their circumstances.
We’re also conscious that 80 percent of teachers in American schools are white and 51 percent of students are not. So it’s naïve of us to think that schools are not racialized, that we are living in a post-race society where our own race or that of our students isn’t in play when we’re thinking, planning, and asking questions. …
We at UnboundEd are really clear that in order to have a conversation about changing our practices for ourselves – a real shift in conversation – that conversation is proactive and that conversation is uncomfortable because nobody wants to feel that they haven’t done a good enough job. It promotes growth as professionals with compassion.
Maya Angelou said, ‘I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.’
Now we know what it’s going to take to accelerate learning, what students in poverty need to advance in literacy, and the best sequence of mathematics concepts to progress within a grade and across grades.
If we are brave enough to enter a conversation about race and how we work – it will be hard – but if we have compassion for ourselves and each other, it will impact us. Right now we have an achievement gap. We’re pretty convinced it’s not a gap in the kids. It’s in the adults and about what we’re providing.
Q. Are you saying educators have contributed to the “achievement gap”? Can you please explain?
A. We’ve focused quite a bit on reforming education in this country for the last 60 years or so. And while the performance of students overall has risen in response to that reform, there’s a gap that persists between students of color and white affluent students, or white students in general, that has remained very, very steady for decades regardless of the reform.
And so if we look at all of the changes and upgrades we’ve made to our systems and to the way we do things, it leaves a very simple fact and that is: We haven’t yet looked at the details of the content that we are providing and the materials we’re using. And so if all students are able to learn and achieve at high levels, that means that it is on us, the grownups, to meet them where they are and accelerate them to grade level work and not keep low-performing kids low…..
The phrase ‘achievement gap’ implies there’s something wrong with the children – that there’s a deficit in an entire swath of our student population, which is unconscionable – because it’s the grownups that are in control...
It’s our responsibility to get smarter and not live in shame about the past, but to move forward with great urgency.
Q. You have spoken about changing educators’ mindsets and practices. Are you referring to the ‘growth mindset’ researched by Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck? And what kinds of practices are you talking about changing?
A. Our work is for sure informed and influenced by Carol Dweck and her growth mindset work, as well as by Jeff Howard at the Efficacy Institute, and others, who has led on taking Dweck’s work and looking closely at the ways a growth mindset or fixed mindset manifest around race in schools. He was a teacher of mine and so I want to make clear it’s really his work that helped us make that intersection between what Dweck is doing and race…
We have ideas where it’s fairly clear to us what students can or cannot do, and it’s made up. That imagination is really informed by the race of the children and our own experience of race.
The practices of a growth mindset are to provide grade level work, on grade level even if students are missing learning, and to use that so students are constantly targeting grade level concepts, focusing on literacy, and putting grade level complexity in front of students and providing support students need to access that, but not keeping it from them simply because they’re behind.
Q. Does growth mindset also apply to teachers’ perceptions of themselves?
A. It’s for the adults as well – ‘Do we think we can do this? Do I think I’m capable of changing my practice after 15 years – that we are capable of providing learning environments in which all of our students, regardless of their circumstances, can thrive?
Growth mindset is getting to the bottom of what we believe is possible for each child no matter what they look like or where they live.
Q. What are the pitfalls of providing students with ‘leveled’ reading that’s below their grade level?
A. We are under this illusion in this country that … reading at their instructional level is going to be productive for them. The truth is there’s really no empirical research to support that idea or practice…
As adults, we don’t like to see the babies struggle. We intervene much, much sooner than we need to. The more we lead them to it and provide the right questions and prompts and activities – they can make more meaning out of texts than we give them credit for. And the practice and struggle only builds their capacity minute by minute.
Q. You have also emphasized the importance of teaching deep mathematical reasoning instead of how to get the answer. This, along with assigning students complex texts to read, is also stressed in the Common Core standards. What is your view of Common Core standards?
A. No matter what a state is choosing to call it, high standards that demand a level of readiness so that when students walk across the stage, they are ready for college or careers – that is everything I believe in.
Q. Common Core implementation is already underway. Are educators still learning how to teach it effectively?
A. Ronald Heifetz describes the difference between technical and adaptive change. I believe that what’s happened so far is that we’ve made all of the necessary, but not sufficient, technical changes. We have fewer math concepts organized against a set of learning progressions, teachers can find texts on grade level and find curriculum that helps students acquire knowledge systematically….
The next phase is the hard part – looking at our own beliefs, habits, values, practices, and relationships – really examining the heart of the matter….We have accomplished a lot of the work. A key part of that is adopting aligned curriculum. But now its time for the adaptive work, which is really unpacking who we are and how we do our job.
Q. At the institute, you issued a set of calls for action. What are they?
A. Adopt a standards-aligned curriculum.
Attend to the language of the standards – organize your job around the language of the standards.
Talk about race systematically – create situations where we are having conversations together about race.
Examine bias and its role in our work and learning. There are biases in all of us. Really unpack our own behavior and continue to talk to each other.
Commit to adaptive change – take responsibility for this adaptive change within ourselves as practitioners.
— UnboundEd (@unboundedu) January 29, 2018
Q. A lot of what you’re talking about sounds like “culturally responsive teaching,” which recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning. How does that fit in with your educational philosophy?
A. There are a lot of definitions of culturally responsive teaching. What I will say is it (culturally responsive teaching) includes a classroom where students of color are able to encounter great thought – great thinkers of our time – from Du Bois to Malcolm X to Frederick Douglass to Sandra Cisneros to Leslie Marmon Silko – any great writer.
One of the emphases of culturally responsive teaching is to ensure students have access to a diversity of voices. What I am quite sure of is that in order to have that inclusion be as impactful as possible, we have to provide an environment where students are able to access those texts independently and make meaning of them for themselves.
Q. Does UnboundEd provide resources for people to continue this conversation after the Standards Institutes end?
A. All our material is available online for free and under a creative commons license. They are all open educational resources, including our bias toolkit, which is a scope and sequence of articles and films and conversations folks can have.
Q. What are your goals for the education system?
A. We will have work to do until we have an equitable school system in our country. We will have work to do until all children are learning and achieving in a way that prepares them for college and careers. We do not have that now. We have an inequitable system that has to change in order to provide that growth and development equitably.
Q. How do you define equity?
A. Our understanding of equity is a world in which no matter who you are, what you look like, where you come from or what your circumstances might have been, you have the same opportunity in our country – the same access to learning, the same access to thriving and the same access for readiness for becoming a learned citizen.
Q. Where do you go from here?
A. This is all I ever want to do and I believe if we all stay focused, we can fix this in a generation.