The Benefits of Minority Teachers in the Classroom

By Anna Egalite & Brian Kisida

In this Dec. 3, 2014 photo, David Barrett helps his sixth-grade student Vernal Redmond with a class assignment at Lafayette Sunnyside Intermediate School in Lafayette, Ind. Recruiting minority teachers into Lafayette School Corp. was one of the primary action steps outlined and discussed during a listening session held at Lafayette City Hall. (AP Photo/The Journal & Courier, Taya Flores)

RCEd Commentary

The shooting of an unarmed Black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 sparked protests across the nation and prompted calls for greater minority representation in the police force, city governments, local school boards, the teacher labor force, and other positions of authority. Racial representation in the classroom is of particular interest to education practitioners, policymakers, and parents. Many believe that minority teachers are best situated to counter negative stereotypes and to serve as role-models, mentors, or cultural-translators for students of color. Moreover, teachers who can relate to their students’ cultural background should be less likely to hold biased subjective views of their academic abilities.

In 2014, ethnic minorities constituted a majority of America's public school students for the first time, with projections showing that the proportion of minority students will continue to grow for years to come. Yet minority student enrollment is not matched by similar demographic representation among teachers -- nearly 82% of public school teachers are white. On average, Black and Hispanic students are two to three times more common than Black and Hispanic teachers. This so-called “diversity-gap” between students and teachers has been a persistent problem for schools. The gap tends to be wider in areas with high percentages of minority students. In California, for example, 73 percent of students identify as ethnic minorities, while only 29 percent of teachers are from a minority group.

Many experts believe minority students' achievement outcomes suffer as a result of this disparity, and thus the “diversity gap” may be a contributing factor to the persistent achievement gap between white and minority students. Minority students tend to perform lower on standardized tests, and attend college at lower rates. To date, however, there have been few rigorous empirical examinations to point to as evidence that talented minority teachers are part of the solution.

We recently examined the effect of minority teachers on student achievement, and we find that minority students tend to do better with minority teachers. In a recently published study in Economics of Education Review, we follow the trajectories of 2.9 million public school students in Florida over a seven-year time period and examine whether their test scores change in response to their teacher assignment. For all students, we compared their standardized test scores in years when they had a teacher of the same ethnicity to school years when they did not. Because of the detailed data we had access to, we were able to account for lots of other factors that might explain differences in student achievement -- things like poverty status, English language proficiency, gender, average teacher quality, and prior year test scores. Our findings include:

-- Black, white, and Asian students benefit from being assigned to a teacher that looks like them. Their test scores go up in years when their teacher shares their ethnicity, compared to years when their teacher has a different ethnicity.

-- Effects are generally largest for elementary-aged students and students who are lower-performing.

-- Elementary-aged Black students seem to particularly benefit from demographically-similar teachers.

Given these findings, it is certainly possible that the “diversity gap” is a contributing factor to the achievement gap, and efforts to recruit minority teachers may be part of the solution.

At the national level, the U.S. Department of Education has called on celebrities like Spike Lee, Oprah Winfrey, and John Legend to promote the TEACH campaign, a public-private partnership with the aim of recruiting high achieving candidates into teaching, particularly those who are Black and Hispanic. States like Illinois, Indiana, and Florida have set up scholarship funds to entice minority college students into teaching. Numerous urban districts such as Boston and Tucson have started their own initiatives to recruit talented minority teachers. The Teach For America organization emphasizes diversity in its recruitment strategies, and in 2014 half of its new teachers identified as people of color. Seventy percent of TFA’s latest cohort of teachers placed in Los Angeles represent ethnic minorities.

But challenges remain. One obstacle is teacher tenure, which virtually guarantees that the demographic makeup of teachers will consistently lag behind changing student demographics. At the same time, many states don’t have active recruitment programs, and some, like North Carolina, are eliminating support for established programs. Finally, even if a district launches a successful recruitment campaign, there's the problem of teacher retention. Approximately 8 percent of public school teachers leave the profession each year, but the rate is highest among Black teachers. Researchers suggest this is because minority teachers are more likely to work in hard-to-staff schools with high rates of student poverty. As a result, recruitment strategies are unlikely to solve the problem without accompanying teacher retention strategies.

These are challenging questions, but it's essential we tackle them sooner rather than later. The evidence is growing and the need is real. As the diversity of the students in our schools continues to grow, finding effective strategies to attract and retain a more diverse set of teachers is imperative.

Anna Egalite (@annaegalite) is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Program on Education Policy and Governance in the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Brian Kisida (@briankisida) is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Education Reform at the Univeristy of Arkansas

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