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Challenge 2: Bias-Based Beliefs

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Color-evasiveness, deficit thinking, and poverty disciplining are bias-based beliefs that have a particularly pronounced effect on inequitable outcomes in schools, particularly because they are “educational beliefs that project ideas of cognitive and behavioral ability and capacity” (Fergus, 2017).  Additionally, they convey a single standard of achievement and one norm of conduct while simultaneously shunning differences and overlooking the assets therein (Milner, 2020).


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  • Color is not seen; cultural lived experiences are irrelevant (Bonilla-Silva, 2013 and Fergus, 2017).


  • Individualism
  • Centering/prioritizing norms of the dominant culture (Milner 2020), including norms around hairstyles, literature, holidays


  • Leads to dismissal of assertions of systemic racism and systemic inequities which reinforces deficit thinking,  poverty disciplining, and systemic inequities (Fergus, 2017)
  • Culture, values, practices of school members not a part of the dominant culture are devalued, marginalized, ignored and/or “problematic.” (The Continuum | CCPEP.ORG, n.d.)
  • Invalidates lived racial experiences of students of color (Milner, 2020)
  • Cultural background and experiences of the student body are minimally reflected or not considered when determining curriculum or drafting policies and procedures.
  • Can result in students reliving traumatic experiences because of a lack of cultural sensitivity (Fergus, 2017)
  • Conversations about discriminated groups, systemic inequities and social justice are avoided or penalized.
  • Culture of fear, disappointment, tokenization or segregation (Milner, 2020)
  • Students experience microaggressions* (Fergus, 2017)
  • Missed opportunities to: (1) see the whole child; (2) learn about the students’ racial identities as well as their own and how it impacts what is taught; (3) broaden students’ horizons so they see themselves and their culture’s contributions to the curriculum as well as other culture’s contributions; and (4) prepare students to live and work in a diverse world (Milner, 2020).


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Deficit Thinking


  • Certain groups of students/families/cultures: 
    • do not care about their student’s academic performance.
    • aren’t naturally smart or capable of high academic achievement. 
    • are not going to score high, if English is not their first language.
    • If they didn’t test well, they’re not going to do well in the class or successfully handle the curriculum. 
      (Milner, 2020, Valencia, 2012)  


  • Credibility of limited experiences or interactions with students from certain cultural groups
  • Using “leaves” or “trunks” as indicators of likelihood of student academic achievement 
  • Patterns that fit personal lived experiences
  • The validity of one standard or limited measures to assess genius, talent and academic capabilities
    (Milner, 2020)


  • “Students with disabilities are presumed to not be capable [simply because] they’ve been identified as having a disability.  And as a result, may not have access to the same opportunities as their peers” (CDE Office of Improvement Planning, et al).
  • “Assumes a denial of values that supports education…[which] allows for abdication of [educators’] responsibility for connecting with students and families (CDE Office of Improvement Planning, et al).
  • Students feel overlooked, lowered self-esteem
  • “Other-imposed” self-fulfilling prophecy
    • Pygmalion Effect. The Pygmalion Effect is a type of “other-imposed” self-fulfilling prophecy that states the way you treat someone has a direct impact on how that person acts (Schaedig, 2023). In other words, if we as educators expect certain actions from certain students, we are more likely to treat them in such a way that can lead to the anticipated actions. The students’ actions do not necessarily occur because we were right, but rather because of an internalized attitude the student adopted about themselves as a result of the ways we consciously or subconsciously treated them.
  • Lowered expectations in the classroom; increased “busy-work”
  • Lack of inclusive or rigorous curriculum
  • Disproportionately low numbers of people of color in honors or AP classes
  • Students experience microaggressions* (Fergus, 2017)
  • Missed opportunities to learn what students know and build on their cultural assets in order to develop learning opportunities that challenge students (Milner, 2020)

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Poverty Disciplining


  • Low-income students/families, particularly those experiencing generational poverty:​
    • Lack morals, good manners, and/or the ability to avoid self-destructive behavior 
    • “Cannot follow directions” 
    • “Defensive, victimized, emotional”
      (Payne, 2003)
    • Don’t take responsibility for their actions or success
    • Are less motivated or less inclined to succeed
    • Don’t take school seriously
      (Soss et al., 2011)


  • Meritocracy
  • Compliance, assimilation to white dominant culture / “middle class norms”
    (Milner, 2020 and Payne, 2003)


  • A tendency to look at and interact with students experiencing poverty through the lens of deficit-based thinking
  • Assumption that low-income students will be disruptive, disobedient and disrespectful (Payne, 2003)
  • Hyperfocused expectation that the poor students will act in a deviant way (Payne, 2003)
  • Educators default to harsher treatment for students of low-income families rather than wealthier peers (Payne, 2003)
  • Increased risk of segregated learning environments due to special education referrals (Milner, 2020)
  • Student internalized feelings of not being good enough or wondering if they’ll ever going to be good enough
    • “Other-imposed” self-fulfilling prophecy
      • Pygmalion Effect.
  • Students experience microaggressions* (Fergus, 2017)
  • Missed opportunities to: (1) learn more about students, families, and staff that make up your school/district learning community(ies); (2) develop trusting and engaging relationships with them; and (3) build on student, family, and community assets.

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In each of the bias-based beliefs covered above, microaggressions were noted as an impact of educators’ conscious and subconscious beliefs and values; but perhaps we can also  think about them as byproducts of our beliefs - small manifestations of what we think that show up in our interactions with students, families, and colleagues.  According to Nadal, “microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental actions (whether intentional or unintentional) that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to members of oppressed or targeted groups, including: people of color, women, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, and Plus persons, persons with disabilities, and religious minorities (2014). ”  

Microaggressions take the form of microassaults, microinsults and microinvalidations.  Those who use them tend to think nothing of them or view them as inconsequential, thus viewing complaints of the oppressed or targeted groups as being “too sensitive.” However, the impact of microaggressions can be very serious. Let’s look at a few examples taken from the College of DuPage library:  

Microassaults are overt and conscious-explicit or subtle slights and insults expressed to marginalized groups. Microassaults can be:

  • Verbal (e.g. name-calling and the use of epithets)

  • Nonverbal (e.g. behavioral discrimination such as crossing the street or clutching a handbag in the presence of certain individuals)

  • Environmental (e.g. offensive signs, posters, or other visual displays)

Microinsults are often covert and unconscious, meant to tear down a person’s identity through insensitive comments and the use of stereotypes. Examples include:

  • Ascription of intelligence (e.g. unintelligent or smarter than average based on appearance or accent)

  • Assumption of criminality (e.g. guarding belongings more carefully when around certain groups or expressing fear of certain groups)

  • Assumption of immorality (e.g. assuming that poor people, undereducated people, LGBTQ+ people, or people of color are more likely to be devious, untrustworthy, or unethical)

  • Making judgments about belonging (e.g. assuming people are foreign or don’t speak English well because of their appearance; questioning someone’s membership status such as “you don’t look disabled” or “you don’t seem that gay to me” or “if you were Jewish, wouldn’t you do x?”)

Microinvalidations are often covert or unconscious and used to cancel the thoughts, feelings, and lived experiences of marginalized individuals. Examples include:

  • Denial of racial reality (e.g. dismissing claims that race was relevant to understanding a student’s experience)

  • Denial or devaluing of experience or culture (e.g. ignoring the existence, histories, cultures of groups of people – assuming that others are like you)

While all the interactions noted above can occur within a brief period of time, recurring instances of microaggressions can result in depression, anxiety, trauma, and/or intense psychological distress (Nadal, 2014).  


Consider the following vignette from Chapter 2 of Fergus’ book, Solving Disproportionality and Achieving Equity: A Leader’s Guide to Using Data to Change Hearts and Minds.  Do you notice any microaggressions?  If so, what type(s)?  Who might be impacted as a result?  How?


During a classroom observation of middle school English language arts, the teacher wanted to have the students practice the concept of compare-and-contrast using a Venn diagram. The teacher drew on the board a Venn diagram and then wrote “U.S. Citizen” in the left circle and “illegal immigrants” in the right circle.  The students were then asked to describe the two groups.  The following are the words offered by the students: “U.S. Citizen” -- belongs  here, born here, speaks English, gets help from the government, birth certificate, and nice neighbors; “Illegal Immigrants” -- doesn’t belong here, born in another country, speak[s] Spanish and are loud, can’t get help from the government, no papers, sometimes not nice neighbors, and your family helps you a lot.  After the students shared these perspectives, the teacher focused on practicing the compare and contrast skill.


For additional examples of microaggressions, see:


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