Increasing Teacher Diversity Could Be a Game-Changer for Students’ Academic Attitudes

Increasing Teacher Diversity Could Be a Game-Changer for Students’ Academic Attitudes
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James Yapiaz, principal of Bryant Middle School in Salt Lake City, stands outside one of the media rooms, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015. Utah'€™s public school teachers are less diverse than the students they teach, according to a review of state data. While 1 in 4 students is part of a racial or ethnic minority group, fewer than one in 10 teachers fit that description. (Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

RCEd Commentary

It’s long been touted that for students, having teachers that look like them leads to higher test scores. But that’s not the whole story.

Teachers of color are sorely underrepresented in America’s public schools. Despite the fact that a majority of students now belong to a minority group, only 7 percent of America’s teachers are African American, and only 8 percent of teachers are Hispanic. A vast majority -- 82 percent -- are white. As a result, students of color are far less likely to encounter teachers who share similar backgrounds.

Some have hypothesized that this underrepresentation of minority teachers may contribute to persistent academic achievement gaps. This notion is supported by studies that have found small but positive student test-score increases for minority students assigned to demographically similar teachers. Such findings have bolstered arguments and policy directives aimed at diversifying the teacher labor force.

Studies focused on student achievement, however, may have only captured the tip of the iceberg. In our new working paper, we use Tripod surveys and other recently collected data from the Measures of Effective Teaching project to examine the effects of demographically similar teachers on a broad range of students’ academic perceptions and attitudes related to their teachers. Because each teacher in our data is rated by multiple students, we can pinpoint differences in students’ responses that are explained by race and gender interactions between students and teachers.

Our results are striking. Across a number of different specifications, students who share racial and/or gender characteristics with their teachers tend to report higher levels of personal effort, feeling cared for, student-teacher communication, academic engagement, and college aspirations. We observe the largest and most consistent effects when examining female students paired with female teachers, with particularly strong effects for black female students paired with black female teachers. We also find large effects for black male students assigned to black male teachers.

For black female students paired with black female teachers, we find significant benefits on eight of the 10 outcome scales we examine. These scales included items that measured whether students felt cared for, such as “I like the way my teacher treats me when I need help.” Other scales captured student’s effort and aspirations, with items such as “I have pushed myself hard to understand lessons in this class,” and “My teacher makes me want to go to college.” Finally, some scales looked at teacher-student communication, with items such as “My teacher asks questions to make sure we understand what he/she is teaching us,” and “We get helpful comments to let us know what we did wrong on assignments.”

We also find that black male students seem to particularly appreciate the classroom management techniques of male teachers, rating them highly on items like “Student behavior in this class is under control,” and “Students in this class treat the teacher with respect.”

Theories about student-teacher demographic interactions have tended to focus on the psychological and social effects that may occur when students are better able to view their teachers as role models or mentors. Others have suggested that minority teachers may serve as cultural translators or employ culturally relevant pedagogy that benefits minority students. Related research demonstrates that minority teachers hold higher expectations for minority students.

Against this backdrop, our findings on students’ academic perceptions and attitudes make intuitive sense. Moreover, the effect sizes we find are considerably larger than previous studies have found when examining test-score effects. Student achievement as measured through test scores is likely too narrow to sufficiently evaluate the dynamics of race/ethnicity and gender interactions between teachers and students.

A growing literature demonstrates that there are numerous teacher characteristics beyond achievement on standardized tests that contribute to student success. Similarly, our results show that understanding the consequences of the underrepresentation of minority teachers requires looking beyond test scores. Only then can the full implications of the lack of teacher diversity be fully considered. Our findings suggest that despite the difficult challenges of policies to recruit and retain minority teachers, increased teacher diversity could have sizeable benefits for minority students across a broad set of important academic outcomes other than test scores.

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