Last summer, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced plans to accelerate the rollout of anti-bias efforts to every city educator within two years, calling the workshops a “cornerstone” of his school improvement efforts.
But shortening the runway from two to four years for getting about 125,000 department employees through the contentious implicit bias trainings has created challenges — and the initiative is already lagging the chancellor’s aggressive timeline. The department has trained only about 15,000 people so far and anticipates roughly 50,000 more will participate in a workshop next school year, according to Paul Forbes, who helps oversee the implicit bias efforts.
“We have some backlog work to do,” Forbes said, noting that the 15-person team spearheading the workshops has been hiring additional staff in recent months. “We are honoring the chancellor’s commitment to say, ‘let’s make this a priority.’”
The education department’s implicit-bias trainings have been the subject of intense controversy this month, sparked by a series of New York Post stories that quote educators who have felt uncomfortable and were offended by the trainings, including one exercise about “white supremacy culture.” Those stories have captured the attention of national right-wing outlets, including Fox News and Breitbart.
More than 100 education department employees, in an unusually direct response to the negative media coverage, wore blue in solidarity and rallied on the steps of Tweed Courthouse, the department’s Downtown Manhattan headquarters. Escalating scrutiny this week, three top education department officials filed a lawsuit claiming they were demoted because they are white women, an allegation Carranza has forcefully rejected.
Carranza has also vigorously defended the implicit bias training, which is one of the largest initiatives of his young administration. “It’s about the process of being able to do that self-reflection,” he said at a recent City Council hearing. “And if there is a bias, how do you deal with that bias, and how do we help each other not fall into a situation where we’re giving unintended messages to students?”
Forbes said it’s understandable that some educators are having negative reactions to the workshops, which he said are designed to help make people aware of how unconscious assumptions about gender, sexual orientation, race, and disability status can affect the way they treat others or are themselves treated. The purpose, he noted, is not to single out specific groups of people.
“It’s not because you have a character flaw,” Forbes said. “Every facilitator is different but I’m very intentional at every session that if I’m a human being, this is affecting all of us.”
The trainings are required for teachers, administrators, and staff in borough-based support centers — part of a $23 million effort. And educators have expressed a broad range of views about the workshops, which last about five hours, and are conducted during planned professional development sessions, weekends, and even over the summer.
Bronx middle-school teacher Leah Clark said she believed before receiving the training that it was “so necessary” and thought the department’s mandatory session would build on what she’s learned about biases through other professional development. Instead, she was upset by the lack of discussion on how to address biases in the classroom.
“It was 1:15 p.m. — I look at my phone and I realize we’ve been here all day, and I hadn’t felt uncomfortable, I hadn’t felt challenged, and I should have,” Clark said.
For Harlem elementary school teacher Abigail Fuselier, the training “felt planned, it felt professional,” and well thought-out, though she was left wondering how to move forward from recognizing biases. Fuselier thinks the training should be required of everyone, “especially for people who have been in the [department] for 20 or 30 years who haven’t been a part of that.”
And some students have also welcomed the trainings as overdue.
Yet some research suggests mandatory training can activate stereotypes instead of quashing them. (The education department did not respond to a detailed list of questions, including whether the city could cite research supporting its approach. “We’re making real progress towards our ambitious goal of training 125,000 staff members by the end of next year. This work is urgent and important to advance equity now,” department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email instead.)
Forbes said the city is deploying the expanded bias workshops in conjunction with other efforts. Fourteen districts across the city have convened “equity teams” that are digging into data ranging from which students are classified as disabled to which are identified for gifted programs to determine if bias plays a role in such disparities.
Two schools from each of those districts are considered “incubators” that can respond to some of those issues and share best practices — “focusing on things like more culturally responsive curriculum, or reducing suspension disproportionality,” Forbes said.
Still, the mandated workshops are a centerpiece of the education department’s anti-bias efforts. Advocates had pushed the department to expand training, pointing to the disparate impact of suspensions and high-profile instances of teachers accused of offering racist lessons.
But even some advocates have wondered about the speed of the department’s planned rollout and whether they can maintain quality while offering workshops to over 125,000 people in two years.
“The fact that we’re moving at a slightly slower pace is probably better than moving super fast and not being as good,” said Natasha Capers, who directs the Coalition for Educational Justice, an organization that has pushed for the workshops.
City officials emphasized that while they are expanding the rollout, schools and administrators have contracted with various groups to conduct implicit bias training for years. (The education department did not respond to questions about how widespread those workshops have been in the past.)
In its current iteration, the department is also relying partly on outside groups including The National Training Institute on Race and Equity and the Perception Institute, Forbes said.
Forbes added his team has worked to make sure there is some consistency across the workshops, with enough leeway for each facilitator to bring their own experience to the discussion.
“If this is a productive conversation — even with some tension — I’m okay with that,” he said.