Good job

Cedar Knolls Fire Department building, 1964, Cedar Knolls, New Jersey.
In 1957, the author attended school on the second floor of this building.
Source: author.

What’s new?

The Hechinger Report recently described a study in which more than 1500 teachers were asked to evaluate whether a hand written essay showed writing at second grade level. Half of the teachers evaluated a version that referred to the student’s brother “Dashawn,” while the other half evaluated a version that referred to the student’s brother “Conner.” Otherwise the essays were identical. About 30 percent marked the first version at grade level work or better, while 35 percent marked the second one at grade level or better. White teachers were 8 percent more likely to grade the Conner version as at grade level; females were 7 percent more likely to do so. Teachers of color rated the versions about the same. Tests of the teachers’ implicit and explicit bias did not relate to the differences in grading.

When teachers were “given explicit criteria for how to judge the student work” the ratings for the Dashawn and Conner versions did not differ; about 37 percent of teachers rated the two versions as at or above grade level.

What does it mean?

The researchers interpret the results as indicating that the two names, one stereotypically black and one stereotypically white, influenced the ratings. The author of the Hechinger Report article, Jill Barshay, commented: “Small injustices early in life can have consequences. If young children of color get discouraged by unfair grades at the beginning of their schooling, they may never progress very far in their education. We’re losing talent early on and this is one problem for which we may have a solution.”

What does it mean for you?

First let me tell you what it means to me. I know what it feels like to feel different and to wonder if I am being judged fairly. In 1971, I was the first woman PhD student in my engineering program at the University of California at Berkeley. During much of my career, I was the only woman in the department where I worked, and often the only woman in the room during meetings.  I could do pages and pages of examples of microaggressions. The most annoying for me are the ones that assume I will do the secretarial work; for a long time I told people I would be the secretary of an organization “only after the revolution.” Then there are the times everyone in the room but me would be addressed as Dr.  I know the situation has improved for women in engineering, but I hang out at reddit and I hear the stories there from young women; I try to help them.

However, the article on evaluating second graders reported only a small difference in grading. Some may say: microaggressions are just micro, get over it, and stop being annoyed. My literal nightmare during graduate school was the one where I was running a race and had to finish it by crawling through mud. I did finish my PhD, but, even with the highest GPA in the grad program of any student before me, I was plagued with self-doubts. I am concentrating on differences in the treatment of people based on gender because of my personal experience, but the same ideas apply to differences in treatment based on other categories. Racism is baked into the United States; we all need to work hard to overcome the system.

I have worked to avoid microaggressions against others, but I still have to monitor myself daily. And I work very hard to evaluate people fairly. I don’t concentrate on changing my beliefs or feelings (as is done in training designed to reduce bias); I concentrate on changing my behavior, because I know my beliefs or feelings follow, not lead, my behavior.

The most important lesson from the article is that rubrics eliminated the bias. When I was teaching, I often used rubrics for grading because (1) they make grading easier and (2) they help me be consistent. Especially on tests, I worked hard to be consistent, grading all students on the same problem while having the pages of the tests turned so I could not see the names. I would lay out in front of me all the answers with errors and compare them to ensure my consistency.

The use of rubrics in the study also increased the overall grades. I think we all have a tendency to notice what is wrong and to overlook the good. I know that when I am doing evaluations for engineering accreditation I find that early in the process I am often annoyed with everything the program is doing wrong and I have learned that I have to go back again and again to the written criteria and keep myself honest in the evaluation. I always end up reminding myself of everything they are doing right – and also that I may not like something they are doing but the issue is NOT addressed in the criteria so I cannot let my dislike affect my evaluation.

What does this mean for you? Only you can answer that question. I hope that it means you will redouble your efforts to evaluate people fairly by creating a system of evaluation that ensures that ratings are based on the actual performance of the task. For example, the use of a curtain to hide the musician from the jury had a significant effect in increasing the number of women in symphony orchestras from 6 percent in 1970 to 21 percent in 1993.

Where can you learn more?

The original article by David M Quinn of the University of Southern California was published in Education Next.

Susan M Brookhart defines a rubric as “a coherent set of criteria for students’ work that includes descriptions of levels of performance quality on the criteria.” She also provides a great deal of guidance on designing and using rubrics in education. Rubrics for hiring and job evaluation are also used and some believe they can mitigate bias. The amusing rubric for evaluating Superman has many versions and has circulated for many years. I like this one.

The existence of implicit bias is widely accepted but its measurement is controversial.  It is also unclear whether programs designed to reduce implicit bias have the desired effect.

This article makes a strong case that in evaluating people we need to learn to distinguish between confidence and competence.

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