TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

Hey, Michael Jackson … maybe it really DOES matter if you’re black or white

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In 1991, Michael Jackson released another chart topper that had young people around the world singing, "It don't matter if you're black or white." And while we are reluctant to question the King of Pop, it must be noted that – in education – there is mounting research to the contrary, especially if you teach students of color.

In a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the authors, yet again, confirm the positive benefits of students of color having a teacher of the same race, and they extend our understanding further by explaining why this is the case and what that means for school leaders and policymakers today.

Gershenson et al. found that black students' early exposure to same-race teachers is significant and long-lasting. In Tennessee, black students assigned to just one black teacher in grades K-3 were:

  • Seven percent more likely to graduate from high school; and
  • Thirteen percent more likely to enroll in college.

To examine why, the researchers formalized the notion of "role model effects": black teachers provide a crucial signal that leads black students to update their beliefs about what education outcomes are possible, demonstrating that effort pays off.

In North Carolina, the researchers dived deeper into this. If the "role model effect" is true, it seems that black teachers in a school can still serve as a role model without actually being a student's classroom teacher. So, the researchers looked at the long-term outcomes for black students in schools where a larger percent of the teaching staff is black. They found that a 10 percentage point increase in the share of black teachers in a school:

  • decreased the black male dropout rate by nearly 5 percent; and
  • increased black students' intent to go to college by 2 percent.

We know what you're thinking: maybe MJ is right. Maybe the teachers' race doesn't matter; perhaps these teachers are just more effective. Gershenson et al. reject this theory because – in both sites – they did not see the same positive effect of having a black teacher on white students. There's clearly more going on here than a teacher's general effectiveness.

So, yes, we must diversify the teacher workforce … but alas, the Gloved One's words fail us again. We can't just take a "don't stop 'til you get enough" approach. That's because, as we wrote about in High Hopes and Harsh Realities (2016), the pipeline for teachers of color leaks at every juncture. Even if we were to successfully increase retention, hiring, teacher certification attainment, and college completion rates of potential teachers of color to equal that of their white counterparts, we are still decades away from reaching the numbers we need for our teacher workforce to mirror our student population. The problem is demographically challenging, vast and complex.

With this in mind, Gershenson et al. offer several interim suggestions:

  • Offer incentives/bonuses for "hard-to-staff" schools where both black teachers and black students are often overrepresented.
  • Creatively allocate black teachers to face more black students.
  • Provide exposure to black professionals who can serve as role models without serving as a classroom teacher for a year (e.g. guest instructors).
  • Among white teachers, reduce implicit bias and embrace culturally relevant pedagogy, growth mindsets, and a culture of high expectations for all students.

We will add to this list next month, when NCTQ looks at why literally thousands of teacher candidates of color each year are denied the opportunity to teach and what we can do to fix it– without compromising on teacher quality. In addition to overburdened HR directors who are pounded by their school boards for failing to increase the diversity of their staffs, the problems fall to many others to solve. Here the words of Michael Jackson are fitting: "If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make a change."