Previous research has demonstrated time and time again that black students benefit academically and psychologically from having black teachers. A new study from Johns Hopkins University takes it a step further finding that having just one black teacher in third, fourth or fifth grade reduced low-income black boys’ probability of dropping out of high school by 39 percent and made them much more likely to consider going to college.

“Black students matched to black teachers have been shown to have higher test scores, but we wanted to know if these student-teacher racial matches had longer-lasting benefits. We found the answer is a resounding yes,” said co-author Nicholas Papageorge, an assistant professor in Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Economics. “We’re seeing spending just one year with a teacher of the same race can move the dial on one of the most frustratingly persistent gaps in educational attainment — that of low-income black boys.

“It not only moves the dial,” he adds, “it moves the dial in a powerful way.”

Papageorge is one of the authors of a new study “The Long-Run Impacts of Same-Race Teachers” along with Seth Gershenson and Constance A. Lindsay of American University and Cassandra M.D. Hart of U.C. Davis that looked at long-term records of more than 100,000 black elementary school students in North Carolina.

“We partnered together to investigate whether there is a relationship between having at least one black teacher in elementary school and some longer-term test-based outcomes,” Lindsay told Madison365 in a phone interview from Washington D.C. “We were looking to see whether teacher racial match plays a role in high school dropout and your intention to attend college.”

Constance A. Lindsay of American University
Constance A. Lindsay of American University

Lindsay says that they have been working on the study for almost a year. “We used data from North Carolina that is housed at the North Carolina Education Center. This study uses students who were entering third grade between 2005-2008,” she says. “With those kids, there has been enough time that has passed in the data collection that we can see what has happened to them.”

Having more than one black teacher improved outcomes for these students, but not significantly more than having just one, the researchers found. About half the pool of students ended up having at least one black teacher in grades three to five.

Black primary-school students matched to a same-race teacher perform better on standardized tests and face more favorable teacher perceptions, yet little is known about the long-run, sustained impacts of student-teacher demographic match, the study said. Exposure to at least one black teacher in grades 3-5 also increases the likelihood that persistently low-income students of both sexes aspire to attend a four-year college.

“We used this measure called ‘persistently poor’ – students who received free and reduced lunch from third to eighth grade,” Lindsay says. “And we also break that sample down by male and female.”

Having just one black teacher in third, fourth or fifth grade reduced low-income black boys’ probability of dropping out of high school by 39 percent, the study found. Low-income black students who have at least one black teacher in elementary school are significantly more likely to graduate from high school and consider attending college.

“Those were the main results, and then we do some other ‘robustness checks’ where we investigated whether having two or three black teachers made a difference, and we didn’t really find anything there,” Lindsay says.
Was there a significant jump for the African-American females in the study, too?

“There wasn’t much there for the females; most of the results are driven by the boys,” Lindsay says.

Why is that?

“That’s an interesting question. Since this is administrative data, we can’t really see the mechanism through the effect that this is happening,” she says. “We just see the relationship. Some of the things that we thought about that are in line with some of the other work that’s out there on this topic is that perhaps there is a ‘role model effect’ that may be operating here. So, we can’t really say anything about the ‘why,’ per se.”

Part of the study’s explanation for the higher achievement is what’s called the “role model effect,” a term that points to the positive impact of having a role model. Not surprisingly, it helps immensely for black students to see and interact with an intellectual authority figure.

Nationwide the numbers of black teachers are low. Black males, in particular, represent less than 2 percent of the nation’s teachers, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Education.

“People are getting more and more interested in this topic, but there is a really interesting report that came out in 2014 by [the Center for] American Progress by [Ulrich] Boser and I think that at nationwide he puts the number at 15 percent teachers of color,” Lindsay says. “It’s remained flat over time while the student body itself is now about half [students of color].

In the future, the team would like to see if the benefits of teacher race matching last even longer, by looking at college completion rates and income data.

“We are also going to collaborate on another project where we’re going to try and look at even longer-term outcomes. Looking at course-taking and other choices. There are a lot of options,” Lindsay says. “I think the biggest thing that we are interested in is taking it beyond the high school level to see what happens for college completion and potential earnings. We have a few questions about mechanisms and we can’t necessarily see that with our data. If we could find some data where we could look at that, that would be great and we could also think about some longer-term outcomes.”

So, what are the recommendations for now? Obviously, get more black teachers. But in the meantime, Lindsay says, prioritize where black teachers teach. Having just one black teacher in the study made all the difference to students but having two or three didn’t increase the effect significantly. Therefore, schools could work to change student groupings so that every black student gets at least one black teacher by the end of elementary school.

“Obviously, we want a diverse teacher workforce but we know that we are butting up against some restraints because of the achievement gap that we see in the K-12 level and the college-going population,” she says. “For now, there’s a finite sample of black teachers. But with these results, there are some policy levers that districts can use now. If you rearrange the staff so kids in elementary school see at least one black teacher, that’s a place you can start.

“In general, though, our research fits in with the growing body of research that stresses that teacher diversity is important,” she adds.

Written by David Dahmer

David Dahmer

A. David Dahmer is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Madison365.