A recent study has found that unconscious racial bias may be impacting which children are suggested for special education or gifted programs.

The researchers presented 70 third-grade teachers from 14 schools in a single district with a number of case files for fictional male students. Some details were changed to suggest that the boy in the file might be suited to special ed or gifted programs.

Given the same signs of giftedness, the teachers were more likely to suggest white boys for gifted programs than black or Latino boys.

Meanwhile, when white, black and Latino boys showed the same behavior issues, teachers viewed those issues as more problematic in the black and Latino boys.

Finally, white boys were referred for special education more often than black or Latino boys. The findings reveal that teachers seem to see white boys as being more obviously capable. Therefore, they are better suited to gifted programs or more in need of special education because they are underperforming.

Black and Latino boys, on the other hand, were not perceived to be as capable as white boys. The teachers didn’t recognize when they need special education, except in cases of behavioral problems.

By creating a system with lower expectations for black and Latino students, those students don’t receive the same opportunities as their white peers. This can follow them throughout their lives, resulting in a cycle of underperformance. They see that they aren’t expected to do much and internalize the idea that they can’t.

“It is important to note, however, that these findings are not about blaming teachers for being racist,” says study author Rachel Fish, an assistant professor of special education at New York University. “Rather, this research reveals how racism in our society affects the everyday work of teachers.”

Fish believes the study reflects biases unconsciously passed to teachers, and to American society as a whole. It’s likely that the majority of teachers who participated in this study were white, because as I mentioned in a previous post, 80 percent of U.S. teachers are white.

“I believe teachers are doing their best to support all students in their classrooms, yet racial bias affects everyone, often in ways that we’re unaware,” Fish says.

What do you think? If you look at the gifted classes and special education classes at your school, what is the balance of white students to students of color? Is that balance the same as it is in your school as a whole? If not, what can you do to address that problem?