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Black students are more likely to graduate if they have at least one black teacher

Apr 10, 2017

Who did you most admire when you were a kid? Maybe it was your parent. Or a teacher. Or your favorite TV or movie star.

Role models, both positive and negative, help shape how children behave in school, relationships, and when making decisions.

A recent Johns Hopkins University study quantifies the influence of positive role models. The study, published by the Institute of Labor Economics, found low-income black students are more likely to graduate if they have just one black teacher in elementary school.

Researchers analyzed a longitudinal study of 100,000 black students who entered the third grade in North Carolina between 2001 and 2005.

They found having at least one black teacher in third, fourth or fifth grade reduced a black student's probability of dropping out of high school by 29% and made them 18% more likely to express interest in college after graduation.

And the impact was even greater on low-income black boys, specifically, who were 39% less likely to drop out of school and 29% more likely to express interest in college. Study co-author Nicholas Papageorge told Education Week:

We think that students, especially poor black boys, might not identify with higher levels of education; they might not see people with high levels of education that look like them. If that's the case, they might not be making investments in their own education...because they just don't identify with being an educated professional.

We've talked previously about the lack of diversity in teaching. More than half of American public school students are minorities, yet more than 80% of teachers are white.

And school systems have a hard time retaining the black teachers they do have. Data from the U.S. Department of Education found in the 2012-2013 school year, 22% of black teachers moved schools or left the profession altogether, compared to 15% of white teachers.

Khalilah Harris was deputy director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans under the Obama administration. She told NPR:

My youngest, who is 7, goes to supposedly the best public school in Baltimore City, but there is not any teacher of color there, and that is deplorable. If you grow up in a world that does not reflect your essence as valuable from birth, the fact that you don't have a teacher who looks like you, will cause cognitive dissonance.

Studies have shown kids often connect best with people who look and sound like them. And black students are about half as likely to be put on a "gifted" track by white teachers, even with test scores comparable to their white peers, and racial and demographic mismatch can be correlated to suspensions and absences, lowering student achievement.

While having one black teacher had a significant impact, having two or three didn't increase the effect significantly, according to the study. Also, it didn't seem to matter whether the teacher was male or female.

Study authors hope these findings highlight the importance of training teachers on cultural responsiveness, or the ability to learn from and relate respectfully with people from other cultures, as well as the need for more teachers of color. Papageorge said in a press release:

This isn’t a situation where students need two, three or four black teachers to make a difference. This could be implementable tomorrow. You could literally go into a school right now and switch around the rosters so that every black child gets to face a black teacher.