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How Schedule Bias Undermines Educational Equality

Blog post written by
Mesa Cloud Team
Mesa Cloud

“I went to register for my sophomore classes in high school and it was a Latina counselor. She was one of me. I had signed up for chemistry and she said, ‘Why are you doing chemistry? Isn't your dad a sheet metal worker? You should take advanced sheet metal. By the time you graduate, you can get into the apprenticeship program in the union and you're off and running.’ She discouraged me from taking chemistry. And the reason I took chemistry was because I knew that I needed to have chemistry to be admissible to the local land grant university in Tucson, Arizona. And the irony was the counselor who told me that in my freshman year was not Latina, she was white.”
-Richard Carranza, Schools Chancellor, New York City

Our public education system is not equal. Too often, students of color attend schools that are both underfunded and overcrowded. On an interpersonal level, these students are more likely to face harsher discipline for minor infractions as well as microaggressions from educators and administrators. But beyond these overt inequalities, there is a subtler force at work that tends to disadvantage students of color above all—scheduling bias.

Carranza’s story is a perfect example. Even well-intentioned school counselors can allow their personal bias to influence which courses they recommend to students. And because counselors are usually responsible for inputting student schedules, it’s easy for counselor bias to decide which courses students get to take. This can lead to students with good grades missing out on their chances to take the AP or IB courses they need to impress top colleges. The result? Students of color, even after adjusting for GPA and access, are 25% less likely to be placed into advanced-level courses than their white counterparts.

Because scheduling bias can derail students’ educational futures, it is vital that educators, counselors, and school administrators recognize this problem. In this blog, we’ll take a closer look at how scheduling bias happens in order to identify it and take action.

How schedule bias takes root on a systemic level

It’s important not to demonize high school counselors by assuming they’re willfully supporting educational inequality. While the kind of schedule bias Carranza describes is real, the true causes of schedule bias are less individual and more systemic. Here’s how scheduling typically works in American public schools, and how this process allows bias to take root:

  1. Every public school student needs to be scheduled in the right classes to meet graduation requirements. However, no one is enrolled in AP or IB courses unless the student or their parents request it. If the student or their parents don’t know about the advanced course, it’s up to a school counselor to recommend a high-achieving student enroll in these classes.
  2. A typical high school counselor must support an average of 442 students, so counselors are often overburdened with too many students and too little time. This can prevent counselors from taking a close look at each student’s grades and test scores in order to suggest the student enroll in an advanced class.
  3. The time crunch is worsened when counselors must manually enter scheduling information into their school’s SIS. Manual entry is ripe for errors from bias or simple mistakes from overworked counselors. The result is 25% of public high school students have scheduling errors on the first day of class, and students of color are 70% more likely to be affected.
  4. Students of color and those from economically-disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to suffer from these scheduling issues. This leads to them being underrepresented in advanced high school classes—not because they cannot succeed in these courses, but because they never get to try.  

This is the unequal status quo of public school scheduling, but educators do not have to accept it. We can change the status quo of schedule bias by recognizing how it manifests and taking action to make our scheduling systems smarters and more fair. 

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