July 20, 2020

Implicit Bias in Distance Learning: Students Weigh-In on Educators’ Expectations

By Kara Cisco

This post is the fifth in our Education at a Distance series, centering the voices of students, parents, and educators during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Earlier this year, students in my Revisiting Ethnicity and Culture in U.S. History course testified before the Minnesota House of Representatives Education Finance committee regarding racially disproportionate suspension rates. Their testimony (spurred from a student-designed and developed publication called The New Abolitionist) was meant to kick off months of additional student-led activism. And then, COVID-19 came, and with it, distance learning. Distance Learning may have eclipsed concerns about Minnesota’s discipline disparities, but it replaced it with a new set of racially predictable outcomes.

We face the convergence of two critical challenges heading into the 2020-21 school year: Our urgent obligation to provide an equitable education for all students in our extremely inequitable state and the stark reality that this coming year will necessitate at least a partial distance learning model in most districts. 

While in the throes of distance learning, I intentionally broke a long-standing personal rule: Stay within your locus of control. Instead, I argued that some of the largest barriers to distance learning and fundamental inhumanities—housing instability, the digital divide, food insecurity—needed to be addressed before distance learning could yield successful outcomes for all students. My thinking hasn’t changed, and I can’t help but think of my students’ testimony to consider all of the different ways that our implicit bias shows up during distance learning in ways that are within our locus of control—on both institutional and classroom levels. We are set up to neglect the learning and support of historically underserved students—yet again. 

As schools across the state release data regarding the outcomes of their distance learning programs, the evidence shows that students of color and Native American students were underserved compared to their white peers. Analysis of data from my own district shows that those students were nearly four times more likely to fail one or more classes during distance learning compared to their white peers.

It’s been argued that when teachers kick their students out of class—particularly for subjective reasons such as “defiance” or “insubordination”—this is evidence of low expectations. When the criteria for removal is subjective, teachers and administrators ultimately reflect their lack of both willingness and ability to work with a student, create space for a student’s frustrations, and/or collaborate towards the student’s academic growth. But what happens when the learning space itself is gone and has been replaced by a digital platform? Lowered expectations don’t vanish; they persist during distance learning and simply manifest in different ways.

Much has been said about the power of teacher expectations—their influence on student outcomes has been demonstrated in study after study. I would argue that those expectations—demonstrated through which students they expect to succeed and fail (often through subtle cues)—drive the discipline rates that my students so articulately campaigned against last winter. And, I would argue, those same lowered expectations remain present during distance learning, resulting in the same outcomes—students who are pushed out and left behind. 

What Students Have to Say

I interviewed a handful of experts—seven of my high school students. All seven identify as Black, Indigenous, and/or students of color, and each was successful in distance learning. I asked them to think back on their experiences during distance learning and describe how they knew when teachers had high or low expectations of them and how those expectations impacted their learning. As with any student interview, I asked that students not reveal the identities of specific teachers and encouraged them to include their experience in my class, however positive or negative. 

High Student Expectations

Almost every student mentioned teachers who would frequently check-up on them academically and mentally, remind them about missing work, and wouldn’t let them give up.”

“[They] reached out to me if my work wasn’t done and checked on my personal life … I knew that they wanted me to do well.” 

…” [They] reached out [about] things like mental health [and] extending deadlines,” one senior said. “That may seem like that would be low expectations on students, but the teachers that gave more leniency for late work … they know that kids are just going through a hard time, and they really can do the best … in times like this.” 

Students also noted that high expectations were clear when teachers explained assignments clearly using multiple modalities.

“Teachers who [had high expectations for students] explained their assignments well, had the steps for each assignment, clear and easy to understand. Also, they made it easy to contact them with any questions…”

“Teachers who had high expectations would make sure you understand the topic completely … and did not assume that [I was] ignoring the assignments when it took [me] awhile to get started.”

“A few teachers with high expectations would send very detailed emails, have details on Schoology, and would have office hours every day.”

Finally, a few of the students I interviewed mentioned that teachers with the highest expectations also tended to modify curriculum to help students process what was happening and acknowledge the situation.

“[One teacher] had us make our drawing/painting for art class about what COVID means to us or how it affected us in that time period. [Another teacher] would often have little check-ins that we would fill out with how we are doing mental-health-wise with everything going on. And [another] sent out a very good email after the death of George Floyd and things like that make me respect teachers a lot more and makes me more engaged.” 

These responses likely aren’t surprising for experienced teachers. Student growth is often facilitated by a unique confluence of high expectations and personal relationships, and these responses certainly speak to that. On the other hand, when my students told me about teachers who, in their observation, held low expectations, these responses were also extremely instructive and reminded me of my students’ work on exclusionary discipline and its ability to curtail a student’s sense of vigor and motivation in the classroom. 

Low Expectations

When teachers failed to engage with students and, instead, disregarded the work they put in, students felt strongly that their teachers had lower expectations.

“[My teacher] wouldn’t reach out to me. If I reached out, it would take a few days to get a response; [whereas] with other teachers, it took a few hours or minutes. This teacher was short with me when they did reply.” 

 “[They] did not [check] up on how distance learning was going,” a freshman shared. “It took them a long time to grade work.” 

“You can see when the teacher is favoring some students by the way the teacher is checking up on a Zoom [meeting], and they don’t even bring up your name or talk to you … This happened to me a lot, and I would just leave the meeting.”

“It really didn’t give me the motivation to do anything because it seemed like they didn’t care.” 

In terms of classwork, students reported that expectations felt lower when assignments were, too easy, did not seem to have a point, or lacked enough information to understand how to do the assignment.” 

“I felt like my teachers didn’t think I was capable of more challenging work, because I was constantly getting ‘fill in the blank’ and ‘watch a movie’ type assignments. Even though I was at home, I still wanted to learn … I need to be ready for college.” 

Another student expressed frustration because he was dropped from his regular coursework and assigned to a credit recovery program during distance learning. 

“I graduated, after not doing a single assignment all quarantine until the last month of the semester just to prove that I could choose to apply myself, I could succeed, and [to] show how unimportant and meager the average school system is.” 

Education Advocates Must Fight for Ample Time for Planning and Collaboration

Teachers are human—we get busy, overwhelmed, anxious, depressed. All of these things are normal. The thing that separates us from most other professions is that the actions we take bear weight for those in our classrooms (and our digital learning platforms); our behaviors, however trivial or thoughtless, communicate something to our students. 

Teachers were placed under enormous pressure to plan and implement distance learning this spring, and few would argue that point. With the benefit of planning time now in our favor, these students’ powerful words serve as a critical reminder to the importance of assignments that are differentiated, rigorous, relevant, and meaningful for students. 

Granted, these are no small orders; the type of planning that must go into a quality distance learning curriculum will place significant demand on teachers, and it’s critical for education advocates to fight for ample time for planning and collaboration to ensure these outcomes.

I’m saddened that my students’ powerful testimony regarding exclusionary school practices will not be heard by a wider audience. It’s disappointing that their newspaper will not receive the distribution they imagined before the pandemic. I am proud, however, that it has inspired me to examine my own implicit beliefs during distance learning and remember that everything we do when interacting with students communicates our expectations, and those expectations contribute to the academic outcomes of all of our students.

EdAllies seeks to elevate diverse voices and foster a candid dialogue about education. While we provide our blog as a platform for EdVoices and other guest contributors, the views and opinions they express are solely their own.