background_fid_0.jpg
STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.
Education

There's evidence kids learn better with teachers of their own race. The question is why.

class_photo_free_parking.jpg
free parking
/
flickr

 Late last summer I came up almost empty while trying to find out more about how racial differences between students and teachers affect student achievement

In Michigan  about 97% of teachers are white, while more than a quarter of all students are not. We need to understand whether this matters for student achievement, and how it plays out in a classroom more generally.

Harvard researcher Anna Egalite, who I interviewed  back in August, now has a few more answers. Her new research on is being published soon, and finds that when students and teachers are the same race, student achievement (as measured by test scores) improves somewhat. 

Egalite's results come from analyzing a huge Florida dataset that tracked about 3 million students' achievement over seven years. It also tracked about 92,000 teachers, and how they matched up with all those students. The takeaway: When matched with a teacher of their same race did a little better. The effect of this "race matching" on black and white students was stronger in elementary school. For Asian students it was stronger in high school, and particularly in high school math.

That's about all I can draw from the study. There really aren't any answers to why this is happening or how these results should inform our education systems. Egalite and her co-authors seem to totally share in this frustration. They want more researchers to work in this area and with similar data sets.

How little we understand the exact dynamics at play seem to be borne out by Egalite's data on Latino students. Her data show that a match between Latino students and teachers actually lowers achievement. That result makes no real sense, and the researchers chalk it up, appropriately it seems, to a lack of understanding of how the incredible diversity within Florida's Latino population affects the ability of the researchers to even tell what a "match" means for those teachers and students. 

There is, of course, similar diversity within all racial and ethnic groups. We still don't understand how this matters in the classroom. We have always been able to extrapolate that since race and ethnicity matter in general in America, then they must also matter in the classroom. We now have some data that backs up this assumption. We can now assume it will probably be a while before we have any more clarity.