Hunting for the ghost in the machine: NZ Ministry of Ed claims teachers racist (unconsciously)


Didn’t know you had been labelled thus by your employer, the NZ Ministry of Education? In fact you have been, but only indirectly eg. link. The thought leaders at the MOE consider that the underachievement of maori students is due to your unconscious racist bias. So you haven’t actually been called racist, perhaps that would be too strong, just told you are racially biased and you don’t know it.

In my talk at researchEd Auckland in June link I discussed the premise that we need to privilege scientific evidence if we are to improve educational outcomes for NZ children. So what is the scientific evidence that NZ teachers have unconscious racist bias? Unsurprisingly, there is none.

The story of unconscious or implicit bias began, or at least began to take off as a favoured explanation for the statistical lags of different groups in society, with the work of American social psychologists, Greenwald and Banaji in 1998 link. They released the Implicit Association Test or IAT, which purported to measure the unconscious bias of a person. There are different versions of the test and the race-based one rapidly became very popular with social justice advocates, and indeed helped the cement the idea of unconscious bias as the go to explanation for racial inequality in society and that it is scientifically based.

The problems with the IAT are two-fold. Diagnostic tests in psychology need to be both reliable and valid. The IAT fails reliability tests, which means it can give different scores each time the same individual takes the test. It is also not valid in that it fails to predict behaviour link . If it were valid, a high IAT score for racism should predict discriminatory behaviour.

As there isn’t an empirical basis for the claim that unconscious bias can affect behaviour, the Ministry of Education cannot make claims that the unconscious bias of teachers is affecting the achievement of minority students. Furthermore, despite scant evidence that diversity training, or attempts to modify unconscious bias, are likely to be successful, there is pressure to introduce such training for NZ teachers.

Arguments made in support of the unconscious or systemic bias as a cause of educational inequalities sometimes draw on the fact that when poverty or socio-economic data are taken into account, it still doesn’t explain the achievement gap for minority students.  It is concluded that the extra factor must be racism. This an argument from ignorance (a logical fallacy link ) in that it fails to account for other factors that could be causing it. Even if we don’t know what those factors are, is illogical to assume it is racism.

Since it is impossible to measure unconscious bias and there is no evidence that it can be modified, our Ministry of Education is presenting an falsifiable hypothesis as the cause of educational underachievement and inequality.  So whether it exists or not, it remains an unhelpful construct in designing strategies to improve educational outcomes.

Given the poor state of NZ’s educational system as demonstrated by international data link it would pay our Ministry of Education to start privileging scientific evidence –  the science behind reading could be a good starting point – instead of undermining teachers with unproven psychological constructs.

*Please note that I am not claiming here that maori students in NZ do not experience overt racism, although I think it is rare, nor I am I claiming that systemic racism is not a possible factor at play in determining their educational outcomes.




2 thoughts on “Hunting for the ghost in the machine: NZ Ministry of Ed claims teachers racist (unconsciously)

  1. Well said Derek- and bravely said. I enjoyed your talk (and your colleagues) at Research Ed. It seems to me that New Zealand education is so mired in post modernism and critical theory that anything based on empirical evidence is deeply problematic. For example, Cognitive Load Theory seems to me to be something that all teachers can apply very easily, and can be beneficial to all students- especially those who are behind, but is likely to viewed as incompatible with the discursive nature of culturally responsive pedagogy. Its is frustrating to say the least that new ideas about teaching from cognitive science may be denied those who need them most on the basis of ideology, and proponents of them are (at best) unconsciously biased.

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