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Study: Black Teachers Bolster Black Student Achievement

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim


Having at least one Black teacher in the third through fifth grade “significantly reduces” the likelihood that Black male students will drop out of high school and increases the likelihood that both Black male and female students will aspire to attend a four-year college.

Such are the key findings of a new study that examined data in two states — North Carolina and Tennessee — and found similar results.

Dr. Constance Lindsay

Dr. Constance Lindsay — a public administration and policy professorial lecturer at American University and a co-author of the study — says one of the major implications of the study is that educational leaders can make a difference in outcomes for Black students by ensuring that they have Black teachers during the latter part of their elementary school experience.

It’s a relatively easy fix that doesn’t come with a big price tag.

“One of the things that we thought about is [that], a lot of times, education interventions will be these huge, expensive things and not get any results,” Lindsay said. “Here we found that doing something that isn’t necessarily a big, large expensive intervention in terms of diversifying the workforce is actually something that brings about results that are large.”

In the study — titled “The Long-Run Impacts of Same-Race Teachers” — Lindsay and her fellow researchers found that, in North Carolina, having a Black teacher in grades 3 through 5 “significantly reduced the probability of dropping out of high school among low-income Black males by seven percentage points, or 39 percent.”

“Similarly, regarding postsecondary educational attainment, we find that among persistently-poor students of both sexes, exposure to at least one Black teacher in grades 3-5 increased students’ self-reported intent to pursue a four-year college degree” by about 19 percent, the study states.

The study notes that the college-going intent increased by an even larger amount — 29 percent for males.

Similar patterns were found in Tennessee, the study states.

Dr. Ashley Griffin, K-12 interim research director at The Education Trust, a national organization that focuses on educational achievement among students of color and those living in poverty, said the study’s findings point to the value of diversity in America’s teacher workforce.

“The findings show that diversity is a necessity for children of color, really for all children, but children of color in particular,” Griffin said. “School districts must be intentional about diversity because it matters.”

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Of course, one of the questions raised by the study is what precisely it is about Black teachers that leads to better results for Black students.

Lindsay pointed to prior research conducted by some of her co-authors that found Black teachers tend to have much higher expectations for Black students than do White teachers.

“We argue that those expectations can matter, that if you have low expectations you might end up shuffling resources away from certain students or you might be somehow transmitting that low expectation to the student so that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy,” said Dr. Nicholas Papageorge. Papageorge is an assistant professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University, a co-author of the same-race teacher study and also of the paper that Lindsay cited.

Papageorge said it also could be that Black teachers are “just better” because, on average, they have had to “overcome more stuff than White teachers did.”

“That’s just the reality of race in this country. So maybe they’re just better because they’ve overcome a lot of stuff,” Papageorge said.

Alternatively, he said, it could be that Black teachers are “just as good as White teachers” and that “it really is kind of the race-match effect, but that raises all sort of questions, such as what does that even mean?”

The study also posits that minority students “may simply lack role models if they rarely observe or interact with demographically similar individuals who have high educational attainment, which could also lead them to curtail their investments. In each case, the danger is that demographic mismatch generates low expectations that become self-fulfilling prophecies.”

Griffin, who has focused on gathering the perspectives of Black teachers in her work at the Education Trust, said Black teachers believe that their “shared and lived experience” with Black students tends to aid them in helping students become successful.

“This understanding that you can be a role model who can share experience and help students overcome challenges is something that is really prominent,” Griffin said.

Griffin cited statistics that show only about 7 percent of America’s teachers are Black and said that recruiting more Black teachers is only part of the solution. The bigger challenge, she said, is getting Black teachers to say on the job once hired — a goal she said is made more difficult by the fact that many Black teachers feel undervalued.

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“It’s often a complex issue, and teachers are often discriminated against, not listened to, stereotyped as being a bad teacher, and it’s up to really everyone involved — school districts, schools — to see the value of teachers, to hear the challenges in school districts across the country that impact these diverse teachers, so we can foster some growth and staying power in the teaching population,” Griffin said.

The same-race teacher study — conducted by Lindsay; Papageorge; Dr. Cassandra M.D. Hart, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of California, Davis; and Dr. Seth Gershenson, an associate professor of public administration and policy at American University — was conducted as part of a discussion paper series published by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics.

Though the study’s findings that Black students fare better — at least in terms of high school graduation and college aspiration — may sound simple, the study’s methodology was quite complex.

The researchers did not, for instance, simply compare students who had Black teachers in the latter part of their elementary school experience to those who did not.

Rather, for the North Carolina portion of the study, they used school data and utilized complex formulae to determine the likelihood that a student would have a Black teacher in their given school because of changes due to hiring, firing, leaves of absence, and the like. They examined outcomes for students who entered third grade between 2001 and 2005.

“We’re not just looking at Black kids who had a Black teacher and kids who didn’t have a Black teacher. That wouldn’t be the right comparison,” said Papageorge. “The comparison is having a Black teacher because one year there are more Black teachers around than there were the year prior. That’s how we try to mimic an experiment.”

The need to base the findings on a variable other than merely being assigned to a Black teacher were necessary to guard against things that could skew the findings, Papageorge explained. For instance, the study notes that students with lower achievement and greater exposure to school discipline are more likely to be matched to Black teachers, and those factors could affect long-term outcomes.

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Since same-race teacher-student matches had an effect, the researchers examined whether having more than one Black teacher during the grades in question also made a difference but found that it only had a “marginal effect.”

“The lack of strong dosage effects suggests an important policy implication: the number of Black teachers need not be dramatically increased to close racial gaps in educational attainment,” the study states. “Rather, our results suggest that efforts to match Black students with at least one Black teacher in primary school could begin immediately, by thoughtfully matching students to current teachers.”

To shore up their findings, the researchers examined data in Tennessee using the state’s Student Teacher Achievement Ratio, or STAR program, which in the 1980s randomly assigned students to classes of varying sizes to determine the impact of class size on student achievement. The researchers used STAR because, in the process of being randomly assigned to classes of different sizes, students were also randomly assigned to Black teachers, thus enabling the researchers in the same-race teacher match study to capitalize on the experimental nature of STAR.

They found that being assigned a Black teacher in the first year of STAR reduced the likelihood of dropping out of high school by 15 and increased the likelihood of taking a college entrance exam by 10 percent.

“These estimates are remarkably similar to those reported for the low-income sample in North Carolina,” the study states.

Lindsay said she and her fellow researchers plan to examine in the coming year or so whether the benefits of Black students having a Black teacher also lead to higher college completion rates and annual income.

Lindsay and Papageorge acknowledge that the study has its limitations. For instance, they examined state-level data, which may or may not necessarily correspond with what happens at the city level, particularly in large urban school districts.

Still, the preliminary results are encouraging, particularly as it relates to a simple fix that could lead more students to signal their intent to go to college.

“To the extent that we believe there’s benefits from attending college, and if more people are saying they are going to college, that’s a good thing,” Lindsay said.

Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at jabdul-alim@diverseeducation.com or follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.

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