As a child in Memphis, Tennessee, Jason Okonofua followed his two older protective brothers, even when they fought in the schoolyard. By grade 10, he had attended half a dozen schools, been suspended four times, and expelled once.
While his brothers were skipping college, the intellectually gifted Okonofua quickly rose through the academic ranks after landing a scholarship to Rhode Island’s prestigious St. George’s Preparatory School. But he never forgot the excessive discipline in Memphis that held back his brothers and other non-white peers.
This fall, with the support of tech titan Google, Okonofua, 31, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, will launch an online intervention for more than 100 American teachers to motivate them to test their biases towards students. African Americans before punishing them. . His approach is the first of its kind.
“Teachers are more likely to view black children as troublemakers, and children who have more suspensions are less likely to go to college and get into prominent workplaces,” explains Okonofua, who has co-authored and directed fundamental studies on racial disparities in school discipline. as a doctoral student and postdoctoral fellow at Stanford.
Okonofua’s empathy intervention will target teachers at more than 20 middle schools in several states in the southern United States, inspiring them to rethink instinctive punitive measures.
âMy goal is to reverse the downward life trajectory that begins with suspensions and expulsions,â he says.
Intervene before trust erodes
This means intervening before African Americans and Latinos, who face the highest number of suspensions and expulsions, reach high school and lose faith in the education system.
âMiddle school is a pivotal time as teens navigate multiple relationships with teachers while undergoing biological changes as they discover levels of control and respect,â Okonofua says. âBasically, college records predict who will drop out of high school. “
Last year, Okonofua conducted a similar online psychological intervention for about 30 teachers at five colleges in California. The program, which involved reading student testimonials about their relationships with teachers, among other things, is credited with halving suspensions at those schools.
Its success has caught the attention of Google’s IT training team, which is keen to partner with innovative projects that bring more under-represented groups into the tech workforce. The group decided to invest in Okonofua and his research team to help them reach more schools nationwide.
“Google and its partners want to reduce the damage exposure to unconscious bias can have on long-term education and labor market outcomes for students in kindergarten through grade 12,” says Sepi Hejazi Moghadam , responsible for research and evaluation of computer education at Google. division.
âBy focusing on educators, we can help them become aware of their unconscious biases and learn how they can adjust their teaching practices to support the learning of diverse students, whether in computer science and STEM or in other areas, âhe adds.
Concerns over the rate of suspensions and expulsions escalated in 2014, when the United States Department of Education released data showing black students were being suspended three times as many as white students. While this rate has gradually declined, racial disparities in school discipline measures persist.
In California, for example, black students in 2015 made up 6 percent of the state’s public school students, but accounted for 19 percent of suspensions compared to white students, who faced 4 percent of suspensions.
The son of a Nigerian-born economist and an African-American nurse, Okonofua grew up in downtown Memphis. Despite the frequent change of schools, Okonofua was a star student taking AP classes.
At the end of ninth grade, he was sent to a summer program at St. George’s School in Rhode Island, where he excelled academically and assumed leadership roles.
St. George’s, a private episcopal boarding school founded in 1896 on a hill overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, was far from its Memphis schools with their metal detectors and principals roaming the halls on walkie-talkies.
Okonofua is 6ft 2in, wide shouldered and athletic, and the St. George’s football coach was keen to recruit him. But Okonofua had other plans: âI didn’t want to be on the athletics track,â he says.
His academic results earned him a full scholarship to St. George’s, followed by undergraduate study at Northwestern University in Illinois, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in African American studies and psychology.
Among other topics, he studied the psychological repercussions of juvenile detention. This led him to reflect on the racial disparity in the discipline during his college years and ultimately to hypothesize that teacher empathy instead of harshness could reverse the high rates of suspensions and d deportations, especially among minorities.
He moved west to Stanford for his doctorate. and co-author of a 2015 study that found teachers are more likely to view black students as troublemakers and to discipline them more severely than their non-black counterparts. The following year, as a postdoctoral fellow, he published an empathy intervention study, which he had led, which reduced suspensions in three school districts.
Preparations for her latest empathy for teachers intervention began last month, with her research team reviewing school disciplinary records and attending meetings with Google’s education research and assessment group at headquarters. of the company in Mountain View.
âI am truly excited about the opportunities to collaborate with the Google Education team on an innovative way to disrupt the discipline issues and the school-to-prison pipeline that prevent black and Latino children from learning the basics of math and science, âOkonofua said. âTogether, we can potentially improve equity in educational outcomes and, in turn, equity in the workplace. “