THE BLOG
11/02/2016 11:04 am ET Updated Nov 03, 2017

We Are All Eagles: Combating Implicit Bias in Schools with Belief, Hope and Confidence

I was assigned to be a part of the Blackbirds.

I remember it like it was yesterday even though it happened many decades ago, at my neighborhood elementary school in Peekskill, NY.

I was often considered a precocious child, with parents who valued education and reading. But at school, when our teacher separated my classmates and me into reading groups, she skipped over the Eagles, the Baltimore Orioles and the Robins, placing me in the Blackbirds - a low-level reading group.

It was an integrated classroom, but almost all of the Blackbirds were - as the name suggests - Black. And in the very lowest level - the Buzzards - all the children had brown skin. Every one.

This was many, many years ago, but I can still feel the blow such a designation had on my self-esteem. I struggled in school for many years afterward. It wasn't until I was a young adult, and a community college professor recognized something in me, that I began to believe in myself again.

Those memories came rushing back recently when I read a post in Education Week titled "Black Boys in Crisis: They Aren't Reading." In the post, author and activist Matthew Lynch laments the achievement gap between Black and White readers and traces some of its roots to children's earliest years.

He writes: "The connection between reading in early childhood and its impact on future years is clear. Since parents, grandparents, and siblings are the default role models most of the time during that vital 0 to 5 age group, the responsibility to instill early literacy falls on families."

Lynch isn't wrong. Reading is vitally important to a child. And early exposure to - and emphasis on - literacy is crucial. But it's not just about family involvement, being read to and exposed to books at an early age. My story of suffering through the humiliation of the Blackbirds illustrates a larger truth, a complexity that needs to be addressed if we are to achieve educational equity for all our young people.

The fact is, even now, Black and Brown children are being told - explicitly and implicitly - that they are not as capable as other children. They are encouraged to expect less and dream smaller. Over time, they internalize what they hear and feel. And once that happens, the clock starts ticking on when - not if - those children will doubt their own abilities and act accordingly.

Recent research
from the Yale Child Study Center showed that as early as preschool, teachers are looking for bad behavior from Black boys far more frequently than they are from other students. It isn't hard to imagine, then, that those students eventually get to a point where their actions fulfill the prophecy.

I am what you say I am
, cries the child being suspended from school.
I am what you say I am, says the high school drop-out.

Believe me, I know. I am a confident reader now. I read 40 books a year, plus scholarly journals and educational texts, newspapers and magazine articles. I have a thirst for knowledge that is hard to satisfy -- especially when it can be used to help schoolchildren succeed.

But when I struggled as a Blackbird, I remember feeling many days like I wanted to crawl under my desk. My learning stymied, and I acted out. Classmates who knew me throughout primary school have a hard time believing that I've "made it" this far -- that's how poorly I performed. I wasn't incapable, however. I had simply hit a cognitive belief wall.

Too many of our young people are hitting a belief wall today. And that wall is being built, brick-by-inadvertent-brick, by the adults with whom they interact in school each day. From nursery school through college, children of color often receive feedback that is reflective not of aptitude, but of bias.

These adults aren't racist, by and large. I've yet to meet the educator toiling in such a high-stress, low-paying career who is there because they deliberately want to hurt kids.

But we are all programmed with unconscious biases, learned from cultural cues and societal signaling. Black and White alike, we are taught that certain children are able to accomplish some things, and others are not.

Today's educators need to be taught to confront those biases, own them and work relentlessly to combat them. That's why the work we do at NUA is so important, as well as the work of like-minded educators and leaders in the districts, schools and organizations they serve. We strive to offset the fossilized thinking that because children are challenged by poverty or colored by racism, they will never be able to succeed.

Speaking on MSNBC's Morning Joe months ago, the Republican candidate for president Donald Trump indicated to Joe Scarborough that "some of us are born smart and some are not. This is just the way it [sadly] is." Mr. Trump and other adults in leadership positions must come to learn that what he shared is wrong. Neuroscience is teaching us that talent is universal. All humans possess 86 billion to 100 billion neurons. We all have the unique intelligence and talent to achieve our dreams of success.

Belief can animate hope, and hope is a chemical, neurological truth. But implicit bias can destroy hope. And without hope, the learner loses confidence and is unable - without intervention - to more forward toward competence, much less excellence.

I was lucky enough, eventually, to find teachers who believed in me. And in their belief in me, I found that hope. Because someone saw something in me, I thought, "There must be something there." And I endeavored to discover what it was and pursue it.

I crawled my way out of the Blackbirds, out of the low expectations that were foisted on me.

Our Black and Brown children can do it too - especially if their educators show by example that implicit bias can be challenged and conquered.

In the age of racial discord, class inequality, rampant hate and Donald Trump, it is becoming more and more imperative that we do everything we can to change beliefs, instill confidence in our children and let hope emerge.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at e_cooper@nuatc.org. He tweets as @ECooper4556.