Feature Stories

Unequal Opportunity

Researchers ask tough questions about unconscious bias and racial inequality in schools
  • Racially diverse school children sit in a row.

"I'm interested in how teachers’ and administrators’ day-to-day implementation of education policies are influenced by their personal beliefs about race."

-Kathryn McDermott

Kathryn “Katie” McDermott has spent her academic career studying public policy that addresses inequality in education. Some of her work has examined desegregation programs that aim to make schools more diverse, and the various factors that can get in the way of that goal. In other research, she’s looked at curriculum standards and accountability measures designed to ensure that all students receive quality education.

“I’ve always been someone who wanted to focus on the structural, the policy issues,” says McDermott, a professor in UMass Amherst’s College of Education and School of Public Policy. A political scientist by training, she says, “I’m used to thinking about institutions and structural issues.” But in recent years, she’s become more interested in the ways individuals’ perceptions and biases shape how education policies are or aren’t successfully implemented. “I’ve realized that what goes on in people’s heads ends up having structural implications,” she says.

McDermott will be able to pursue that question during the 2016–17 academic year thanks to a grant from the Spencer Foundation, which supports high-quality research focused on improving education. Spencer’s Midcareer Grant Program allows established scholars to build on their expertise by spending a year learning about new theories and methodologies that they can apply to their work.

For McDermott, that will mean delving into the field of social psychology to better understand how individuals’ unconscious racial biases affect their behavior, specifically in the field of education. “I know a lot about racial inequality in education policy,” she explains. “I don’t know much about how people’s beliefs and micro-level actions contribute to entrenching racial inequality in schools.”

In particular, McDermott is interested in how teachers’ and administrators’ day-to-day implementation of education policies are influenced by their personal beliefs about race. For example: How do schools decide which kids are put in honors classes, and what is the message to black and Latino students when they see those classes filled largely with white classmates? What keeps white teachers from directly and comfortably addressing issues of race in their classroom, and how does that affect their relationships with students of color? Are discipline standards applied equally to students of various backgrounds, or are some students more likely to be punished for subjective transgressions such as being “disrespectful”? And what are the long-term consequences for those students?

Over the course of the year, McDermott will work with several experts in the psychology of bias and the ways that social psychology research can be applied to public policy. Her mentors include Rachel Godsil, a professor at Seton Hall University School of Law and cofounder and director of research for the Perception Institute, a consortium of scholars and advocates who apply social psychology findings to reduce discrimination and other harms connected to race, gender, and other identity differences. McDermott also will collaborate with Phillip Atiba Goff and his colleagues at the Center for Policing Equity, a think tank focused on improving relations between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

McDermott has also teamed up with UMass Amherst colleague Linda Tropp, a professor of psychology in the College of Natural Sciences who is also a research adviser to both the Perception Institute and the Center for Policing Equity. As a social psychologist, Tropp says, she’s especially interested in applying research findings to social justice issues; among other topics, her work focuses on racial and ethnic integration in schools, which, she notes, research has consistently shown to be beneficial to students.

While McDermott’s work to date has been at the macro level of political and social institutions, Tropp’s research focuses on both the micro level—“what’s inside a person’s head: their thoughts and emotions, their perceptions of situations”—and the meso level, “the immediate social environment of their interactions,” she explains. In a longitudinal survey study that looks at middle school students’ experiences with kids from other backgrounds, for example, Tropp considers the way the racial climate and norms at their school influences their interest in making friends from other backgrounds. “[If] they see that this is a school where the principal and teachers encourage everyone to be friends, that leads the kids to develop greater interest in those friendships,” she notes.

Tropp’s research also looks at how training and other supports can help teachers feel comfortable addressing issues of race in the classroom and teaching students from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds—an important issue, since the student population in the U.S. is increasingly diverse, while the great majority of teachers are white. That’s another area McDermott hopes to address in her future work.

Unlike many grants for scholars, the Spencer Foundation grant doesn’t support a specific research project, but rather allows the recipient to pursue a more open-ended course of study—something McDermott is especially excited about. “I’m not going to have any answers at the end of the year,” she says. “What I’m hoping to have are really good questions about how bias works itself out in a school setting.” Those questions will then shape McDermott’s research priorities over the coming years, as she explores the connections between individuals’ personal beliefs and perceptions and public policy.

Further down the road, McDermott hopes to work with teachers to help them find ways to effectively address issues of race and to best reach all their students, from all backgrounds. “Getting back to the structural issues that I began with, are there policies that can be put in place that create a better environment for people to interact with each other? Even if politics and polices aren’t especially helpful, what can you do in the school?”

While she is officially McDermott’s mentor under her Spencer Foundation grant, Tropp believes they’ll both benefit from their work together. “I hope to learn more from Katie about integration policies at the school level and the district level,” she says. “I hope there’ll be some mutual mentoring going on.”

Maureen Turner