The Role Of Teacher Diversity In Improving The Academic Performance Of Students Of Color

Last month, the Albert Shanker Institute released a report on the state of teacher diversity, which garnered fair amount of press attention – see here, here, here, and here. (For a copy of the full report, see here.) This is the second of three posts, which are all drawn from a research review published in the report. The first post can be found here. Together, they help to explain why diversity in the teaching force—or lack thereof—should be  a major concern.

It has long been argued that there is a particular social and emotional benefit to children of color, and especially those children from high-poverty neighborhoods, from knowing—and being known and recognized by—people who look like themselves who are successful and in positions of authority. But there is also a growing body of evidence to suggest that students derive concrete academic benefits from having access to demographically similar teachers.

For example, in one important study, Stanford professor Thomas Dee reanalyzed test score data from Tennessee’s Project STAR class size experiment, still one of the largest U.S. studies to employ the random assignment of students and teachers. Dee found that a one-year same-race pairing of students and teachers significantly increased the math and reading test scores of both Black and White students by roughly 3 to 4 percentile points. These effects were even stronger for poor Black students in racially segregated schools (Dee, 2004).

Similarly, another study (Hanushek et al., 2005) found that African-American teachers were significantly more successful than White teachers in improving the reading and vocabulary scores of African-American students. And yet another (Clewell , Puma & McKay, 2005) found that test score gains in mathematics were significantly higher for Latino students taught by Latino teachers than for similar students taught by teachers of different ethnic backgrounds, while gains for Black students paired with Black teachers, though weaker, were also positive.

Other studies show that racially and ethnically similar teachers significantly improved the high school graduation rates of African-American and Latino students, increased the matriculation rate for Latino students, reduced Latino students’ dropout rates, lowered the number of Latino students assigned to special education, boosted Latino students’ placement in classes for the gifted, decreased Latino students’ rates of suspension and expulsions, and increased African-American students’ enrollment in advanced math classes (Fraga et al., 1986; Farkas et al., 1990; Meire, 1993; Hess & Leal, 1997; Clewell , Puma & McKay, 2005; Klopfenstein, 2005; Pitts, 2007).

Another line of argument focuses on students’ need for relatable role models and, in like manner, the role of teachers of color in helping school feel like a caring place for students of color. Fundamentally, this is an extension of community, where students feel that they and their home cultures are warmly embraced. Theresa Perry, Claude Steele and Asa Hilliard (2003), in Young, Gifted and Black: Promoting High Achievement among African-American Students, argued that, although much was gained, something was also lost with the advent of integrated school systems, specifically that segregated Black schools of previous generations were intentionally organized in opposition to the ideology of Black inferiority. In other words, in addition to being sites of learning, they also instituted practices and expected behaviors and outcomes that not only promoted education—an act of insurgency in its own right—but also were designed to counter the ideology of African-Americans’ intellectual inferiority and ideologies that saw African-Americans as not quite equal and as less than human.

Indeed, there is research that suggests that the performance of Black students, perhaps more so than students of other races and ethnicities, is influenced to a large degree by the support and nurturing provided by teachers (Foster, 1997; Ladson-Billings, 1994).

It has been argued that teachers of color can help fill this gap for minority students by bolstering their confidence and motivation, and alleviating their sense of marginalization (Cole, 1986; Graham, 1987; King, 1993). Further, since “teachers are often the only college-educated people they know,” poor minority students can derive great benefit from having access to role models who (1) understand their home cultures, (2) understand the education system and have succeeded in it, (3) are interested in the students’ educational progress, and (4) will challenge students academically. That is, culturally similar teachers may take more interest in mentoring minority students and have more credibility with those students (Klopfenstein, 2005).

Relatedly, Gloria Ladson-Billings (1994), Pedro Noguera (2008) and other scholars have emphasized that teachers who have knowledge of children’s out-of-school lives and cultures are less likely to confuse cultural difference for cultural or intellectual disadvantage. In one example, Lisa Delpit (1986) describes a Black teacher’s frustration with a process approach to writing being advocated by White colleagues that, in her opinion, gave insufficient focus to challenging content and skills:

These people keep pushing this fluency thing,” said Cathy. “What do they think? Our children have no fluency? If they think that, they ought to read some of the rap songs my students write all the time. They might not be writing their school assignments, but they sure are writing. Our kids are fluent. What they need are the skills that will get them into college. I’ve got a kid right now, brilliant. But he can’t get a score on the SAT that will even get him considered by any halfway decent college. He needs skills, not fluency.

Obviously, the first priority must be to ensure that every student has the benefit of being taught by skilled, knowledgeable and caring teachers—of whatever race and ethnicity. This is and must remain our main concern. That is, race and ethnicity need not be the top factor in deciding how teachers are recruited, hired, as­signed or retained—but there is ample evidence to support the contention that it should at least  be a factor, and an important one at that.

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