How to address implicit bias in education

WRAG kicked off its 2017 public education learning series, in May, with a session on the challenges facing education. After the session we asked the speakers, Terry Dade, assistant superintendent of Region 3 for Fairfax County Public Schools, Adele Fabrikant, executive director of Teach For America’s DC Region and Maura Marino, CEO of Education Forward DC, to reflect on how they and their groups work to understand and overcome implicit biases and the impact those biases can have on which education initiatives get funded. Terry Dade was unable to respond but Adele and Maura’s responses are below.

Adele Fabrikant (left), executive director of Teach For America’s DC Region and Maura Marino (right), CEO of Education Forward DC.

Interviews by Education Forward DC

What do you see as the impact of implicit biases in education grant making in DC?

Maura: When we look at student outcomes in DC, race is a huge predictor. That is the result of how we’ve structured schools. In everything—from who is hired to teach our students, to how teacher-training programs are organized, to the culture of schools, and the way curriculum is written—the system needs to be rebuilt to dismantle the institutional biases.

There is a tremendous need to change the power structure in philanthropy.

Historically, leaders of color have had less access to philanthropy than white leaders. We want to be intentional about supporting leaders of color who have really compelling ideas, who can lead the way toward our mission of ensuring that all kids in DC have access to great schools.

Adele: There are very limited resources going directly to communities of color, or to low-income communities. It’s clear that grant makers are often less comfortable investing in organizations that are less known. Just as we need diversity in the work, we need diversity in thinking around resource allocation to support the work.

What work are you doing to give teachers and leaders skills and resources to address and overcome their biases?

Adele: When teachers first come to Teach for America in the DC region, we focus on identity development. We do that so that teachers are well aware of themselves and their own identities and biases before they walk in the door to the classroom, where those biases will play out in the way in which they work with their students. And then we revisit and build on these lessons throughout their two-year commitment with us.

Regardless of what we believe is effective teaching and learning, it has to start with validating a student’s background and experiences in the classroom, and leveraging them as a means of learning.

Maura: The programs we work with are thinking deeply about how we equip all educators to understand that implicit bias, racial bias, and racism need to be understood and confronted in order to be effective in supporting student learning for all students. They work on intentionally unpacking and supporting teachers on topics such as culturally relevant instruction, cultural competency in work with families, and what it means to run an equitable classroom.

Among the groups we’re supporting is one called The Fellowship for Race and Equity in Education, which is bringing together a group of leaders from K-12 education, housing, transportation, juvenile justice, and policing for 18 months. These leaders will build their own skills as leaders for equity in their organizations, and will collaborate on projects that interrupt racial bias in work across the city that impacts youth.

What can grant makers do to overcome biases and give grantees, especially those who are people of color, a better chance at receiving grants?

Maura: I bring a ton of biases to the work—everything from social norms, to how I communicate, to how I interpret other people’s communications. It is not my intention, but the impact might be that I am overlooking someone who is really high potential, or we chose to fund someone because we’re comfortable with them and their network. Because of that, I have to purposefully understand my own identity, check my assumptions, and build a team and organization in which a diversity of perspectives are valued, and we can call each other out when biases are showing up.

Many funders expect to see organizations present in a certain way—for example, they expect to see an organizational summary in PowerPoint slides, or they expect leaders to talk about metrics and outcomes using certain structures. If it’s not a world that you’ve worked in, there would be no reason to know those norms and expectations. We have to step back as a grantmaking community and ask: in what ways are those biases standing in the way of the great work that can be truly transformative for our kids?

Adele: Being explicit about the decision-making process is important. Certainly I think having a diverse set of people with diverse perspectives at the table in making those decisions is critical. When I say diverse, I mean diverse in terms of race, diverse in terms of economic background, diverse in terms of professional experiences. All of that will only help to strengthen the quality of the conversation that you’re having and the ability to be fair and equitable in the decision-making around limited resources.

Don’t forget to register for the final program in WRAG’s 2017 public education learning series on December 1. We will explore what it takes to ensure that all young people graduate on-time from high school, fully prepared with the skills they need for college and a meaningful career. Register here