Unconscious bias and education: A comparative study of Māori and African American students

Race discrimination Education Unconscious bias Pasifika New Zealand United States of America
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This report explores education outcomes for Māori and African American children, especially in regard to underachievement by these groups. While the histories and cultures of the two groups are very different, almost every economic and social statistic indicates that they occupy similar social spaces in their respective societies. When educational outcomes of Māori and African American children are compared, a strong and consistent pattern of disadvantage emerges. The authors believe that research and interventionist programmes designed to reduce bias against African American children and adults can be adapted for use in a New Zealand context.

In New Zealand a hierarchy has developed. Recent research shows that teachers have highest expectations of Asian students, followed by Pakeha, Pasifika, and finally Maori. To mitigate the impact of these biases, the starting point for change then is for teachers to understand their own biases, and mitigate their impact on decision- making and interactions with students.

Key messages from the report include:

  • Deeply held and subconscious biases, based on social groupings and in-group favoritism, determine human behaviour and influence relationships between diverse social groups and ethnicities. The paradim of unconscious bias helps explain patterns of discrimination.
  • Māori children face significant barriers to achievement, which stem from negative stereotypes attached to Māori as a social group. Personal and interpersonal racism – and institutional racism – also work together to perpetuate Māori disadvantage.
  • The “Pygmalion Effect” describes how teachers’ expectations determine, to a large part, students’ educational outcomes. If Māori children are to achieve, teachers must lift their expectations of students and treat all students as having the same potential for achievement.
  • US literature shows that gaps in achievement between individuals and across socioeconomic and racial groups open up at a very young age, before children start school. The gaps that emerge at a young age strongly affect adult outcomes.
  • Location and neighbourhood have a huge impact on success later in life. Children who move to low-poverty areas below the age of 13 do much better as adults.
  • African American students who do well at school are picked on by their peers for “acting white”. External forms of repression also come into play. Unconscious bias is a major factor, manifested in insidious discrimination that affects African Americans in every sphere from getting a job to obtaining medical advice.
  • Recognising how unconscious bias influences teachers’ relationships with Māori students is the key to lifting Māori educational achievement. Tools and programmes to address unconscious bias towards Māori should be developed and applied broadly in the full range of education, health and social service sectors. A whole of systems approach is required.
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