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Why Diversity Matters: Five Things We Know About How Black Students Benefit From Having Black Teachers

By Kevin Mahnken | August 15, 2018

Mario Tama/Getty Images

This is the latest article in The 74’s ongoing ‘Big Picture’ series, bringing American education into sharper focus through new numbers, research and reporting. Go Deeper: See our full series.

There’s no question that tomorrow’s classrooms will be more racially diverse than today’s. Between declining birth rates among whites and immigration from Asia and Latin America, experts project that racial minority groups will constitute a majority of the U.S. population within the next 30 years. The transformation is already well underway in schools; the number of minority K-12 students is believed to have exceeded that of whites several years ago.

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What does that mean for how we teach kids? Can an education profession overwhelmingly comprising whites and women effectively instruct surging numbers of pupils who do not resemble them? And if not, what can be done to introduce more diversity into the teaching ranks?

Those questions are increasingly on the minds of education researchers, many of whom spend their careers studying how to close troubling academic gaps between different student populations. Though the issue of racial and gender representation in the classroom is not a new one, the past decade has seen a wealth of new evidence on how students react to being taught by people who look like them.

1 Black Students Benefit

Although the magnitude of the effects can differ, numerous research studies into the question of racial matching (the pairing of a given student with a teacher of the same racial or ethnic background) point to the same conclusion: All things being equal, black students do better when they’ve been taught by black teachers.

Tom Dee, an education professor at Stanford, conducted an experiment that many regard as the groundbreaking study in this field in 2004. Examining participants in Project STAR — a massive research project in Tennessee looking at the benefits of reducing class sizes — he found that black students who were assigned to a black teacher for at least one year between kindergarten and third grade saw their math scores improve by 3 to 5 percentile points; their reading scores jumped by 3 to 6 percentile points. White students also enjoyed advantages from studying under same-race teachers, though boys were more affected than girls.

A 2015 report by researchers Anna Egalite, Brian Kisida, and Marcus Winters produced similar findings. Tracking Florida students between grades 3 and 10, the team found that white and black students made slight gains in both reading and math after being assigned to a same-race teacher (Asian/Pacific Island students assigned to same-race teachers realized gains in math alone).

2 It’s About More Than Test Scores

Test score improvements like those are impressive, but they hardly settle the issue. For the long-term impact of racial matching, there is no research more striking than a study of North Carolina students circulated last year by Seth Gershenson, Cassandra Hart, Constance Lindsay, and Nicholas Papageorge. In a finding that gained headlines around the country — though it hasn’t yet been validated by peer review — the group reported that exposure to just one black teacher between grades 3 and 5 significantly reduced the high school dropout rate among black male students. Additionally, black students of both sexes were more likely to take a college entrance exam or to say that they intended to go to college.

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The consensus, then, points to a clear positive on academic achievement and attainment for students who are taught by teachers of the same race — and particularly black male students, who are often described as among the most vulnerable student populations.

3 Why Does Matching Work? The Need for Role Models is One Answer

So why are we seeing these effects? Why is a black student likely to perform better in his studies and aspire to college if he encounters a black teacher somewhere early in his education?

Researchers offer a few answers, but one involves the “role model effect”: Simply seeing a person who looks like you in a professional setting could make you more likely to attain a higher level of education yourself.

“I think the research at this point has been pretty definitively clear that there’s something going on here,” Brian Kisida, a professor of education at the University of Missouri, told The 74. “And from a theoretical perspective, it makes intuitive sense that children need role models or people in positions of authority that represent them in some way.”

Kisida analogized the impact of being assigned black teachers to that of Barack Obama becoming president — the very fact of his election seemed to open the doors of possibility. Reams of economic research, including the pioneering work of Harvard economist Raj Chetty, point to the importance of black male role models on young black men. Without some proof that academic and professional opportunities are open to them, the theory goes, many will never take even small steps toward social mobility.

4 Another Reason? Expectations Matter

The other hypothesis revolves around the power of expectations, and how they differ among racial groups. Multiple studies have suggested that white teachers simply have lower expectations of black students than of white students. That may explain why black students are significantly less likely to be referred to gifted programs in the absence of a black teacher — even when their academic work would merit referral.

“Research shows that [teachers of color] hold higher expectations for students of color,” Kisida said. “We know that expectations matter, and I think holding higher expectations is an active component in the classroom, suggesting, ‘You can do better, and I can challenge you.’”

Divergent perceptions of students from separate racial groups can result in divergent assessments of their work and behavior. Controlling for a variety of student characteristics, researchers found in a 2013 study that white teachers view black students more negatively on the whole than white or Latino students, who are themselves viewed more negatively than Asian students.

And those types of perceptions cut both ways. Another study from Kisida and Egalite found that black students were much more likely to describe themselves as happy in school, feel cared for by their teachers, and highly rate the communication between themselves and their teacher if that teacher was black.

5 Matching Also Offers a Unique Window on School Discipline

The flip side of the expectations game can be seen in the issue of school discipline. The rate of exclusionary discipline — when students are sent away from their classroom or school building for a behavioral infraction — has been found to be significantly higher for black students, and especially black boys, when they are assigned to white teachers.

A 2015 study conducted by Stanford social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt found that white teachers were more apt to recommend stricter punishments for students with stereotypically “black-sounding” names like Darnell or Deshawn, even when the hypothetical transgressions were no different from white students’.

The Next Big Question: How Are Latino Students Affected?

If the literature is fairly clear on one point — that black students benefit from black teachers — it is much quieter on another: What about other forms of matching?

Specifically, not enough inquiry has been conducted into the question of how well Latino students fare when assigned to Latino teachers. While Latinos account for one-quarter of all American students, they make up less than 10 percent of all teachers. Immigration from South America, Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean will be the main driver of demographic change in the United States for the foreseeable future, and our education system isn’t keeping up with the times. Partially, this is because Latinos are still much less likely to graduate from high school and college than whites, blacks, and Asians, and therefore are less likely to become teachers.

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But even with a huge and growing mismatch between Latino teachers and students, we have little evidence on its effect. Most existing studies have been conducted in states like North Carolina or Tennessee, which are home to comparatively smaller Latino populations.

“It’s a glaring omission for a variety of reasons, especially because that’s the segment of the student population that’s growing the fastest,” Dan Goldhaber, the director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER), told The 74.

Goldhaber, who has published a brief review of the literature around racial matching, says that part of the problem is geographical: Many Latino students are concentrated in California, where strict data privacy laws prevent researchers from launching large-scale experimental studies.

Kisida agreed that data limitations have hindered researchers, but he added a further concern: Unlike black students, America’s Latinos form a kind of diaspora population originating from a bevy of separate nations. A Cuban or Puerto Rican student, for example, might not share much history or culture with an instructor of Mexican or Ecuadoran ancestry; without that common background, there is little basis for a special relationship, Kisida said.

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