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“Though”: Bias in a single word

by John Maycock

The New York Times recently ran an article about Success Academy Charter Schools. The author focuses on the New York City charter network’s approach, and disagreement about its appropriateness and effectiveness. Many of the comments and letters in response to the article also took up that debate.

But I reacted strongly to something else completely. A few specific words in the article made me very worried about our unintentional negative bias against groups of students. I am sharing this not to criticize the author, but rather to help raise our awareness.

Here’s the first example:


“Though it serves primarily poor, mostly black and Hispanic students, Success is a testing dynamo, outscoring schools in many wealthy suburbs, let alone their urban counterparts.”



Here’s what I want to draw attention to: this sentence reads to me like, “Schools with poor black and Hispanic students cannot do well. It’s a given, a fact of life.”

To be clear, I have seen the data. Minority students and students from low-income families tend to score lower on standardized tests than their more affluent peers. But there’s a big difference between that history-driven sociological fact and the assumption that being black or Hispanic leads to poor school performance. The article’s phrasing reflects a harmful bias—that a black or Hispanic or poor student doing well is surprising.

It should read, “Success serves primarily poor, mostly black and Hispanic students, and is a testing dynamo, outscoring schools in many wealthy suburbs.” It’s a fact, not some inexplicable phenomenon. These students learned what we expect all students to learn in school.

We all need to understand that it is not only possible, at least when we adults believe it to be true—it should be expected. People can debate Success Academy’s approach, but we should embrace the achievement of the students and demand it for all children.

Then, later in the article:


“[Education policy expert Halley Potter] noted that Success schools tend to have fewer nonnative English speakers and special-education students than public schools; those groups tend to score lower on tests.”


Here is another point where all of us—readers, writers, editors—need to be mindful of harmful bias. We must not assume that having fewer nonnative English speakers is a prerequisite for higher average test results. Words matter. Repeated over time, they shape ideas. And the text of the article implies something dangerous: that there are no lessons we can take from Success’ approach, because only schools with few non-native speakers and students with special needs are able to educate children to a minimum standard.

We cannot accept this as a universally held truth.

When we allow offhand explanations like these to pass unchallenged, we miss the opportunity to get to the root of an issue whose symptoms many school models are addressing: low expectations for millions of children in America. It is our shared responsibility to focus attention where it matters most—our commitment to teach every child.

Years ago, I would have passed over both of these sentences. But over the years I’ve worked with educators and school leaders and colleagues who have raised my awareness of the assumptions that we don’t talk about enough. I’m learning, and am still coming to understand, how much everyday words and phrases reinforce damaging biases when repeated and accepted.

They subtly tell policymakers and voters—and, painfully, those millions of children and their families—that some students cannot be educated. And they tell the readers of The Times that this bias is so unremarkable as to evade an editor’s notice.

I am hopeful that we can focus our commentary more on what’s most important—our belief in children’s potential.

John is ANet’s president and co-founder.

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