Black Teachers Improve Outcomes for Black Students

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BLACK STUDENTS WHO HAVE just one black teacher in elementary school are more likely to graduate and more likely to enroll in college – and significantly more likely if they have two black teachers.

That’s the top-line finding of a working paper published this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research, in which researchers from Johns Hopkins and American University outline findings that show that black students who are exposed to one black teacher by third grade were 13 percent more likely to enroll in college. Those who had two black teachers were 32 percent more likely to enroll in college.

“The role model effect seems to show that having one teacher of the same race is enough to give a student the ambition to achieve, for example, to take a college entrance exam,” said Nicholas Papageorge, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University and one of the co-authors of the research paper. “But if going to college is the goal, having two teachers of the same race helps even more.”

The findings are based on data from a class size reduction experiment in Tennessee, which began in 1986 and randomly assigned low-income kindergarteners to various sized classrooms. Researchers found that black students who were matched with a black teacher in kindergarten were as much as 18 percent more likely than their peers to enroll in college.

Moreover, those who had at least one black teacher in kindergarten through third grade were about 10 percent more likely to be described by their fourth-grade teachers as “‘persistent’ or kids who ‘made an effort’ and ‘tried to finish difficult work,'” the researchers found. They were also slightly more likely to ask questions and talk about school subjects out of class.

The findings mirror those from a 2017 study by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, also co-authored by Papageorge, which looked at the long-term impact of students taught by teachers of the same race. It found that having just one black teacher in elementary school significantly increases the chances that low-income black students graduate high school and consider attending college – and, for poor black boys, it decreases the risk of dropping out by nearly 40 percent.

Previous research has also shown positive short-term causal impact of black students having black teachers, in which their end-of-year test scores were higher than black students who didn’t have a black teacher. But this is the first research showing positive long-term causal impact.

The teaching workforce is overwhelmingly homogenous: Teachers of color represent 18 percent of educators, and black males represent just 2 percent, according to Department of Education statistics. This, while approximately half – 49 percent – of public elementary and secondary school students are children of color.

“For the foreseeable future, black kids are going to go to school and face white female teachers – that’s the reality so the question is what are we going to do about that?” Pappageorge said. “While we make efforts to find and train new black teachers, we also need to educate white teachers about implicit bias, teach them to be culturally competent, and show them how not to exacerbate these existing achievement gaps.”

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