by Kevin Schofield
Back in the 1990s, the state of Tennessee began a field experiment looking at the impact of class size in its elementary schools. Called Project STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio), it randomly assigned students to a certain teacher and classroom. It found, not surprisingly, that class size mattered a lot: Students in smaller classes did better (as measured by end-of-year test scores).
The wealth of data collected for Project STAR, however, has continued to pay dividends for educational researchers. A follow-on study found that Black students who were assigned to at least one Black teacher at some point during elementary school did better on those end-of-year tests than their Black peers who were not.
A more recent study — this weekend’s read — took that analysis one step further, to try to understand whether those short-term benefits carried over to longer-term impacts. The researchers matched the STAR students with data on college attendance from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), which claims to track 97% of people who enroll in colleges in the United States.
They found that the impacts did, in fact, continue. The Black students who at some point had a Black teacher were 13% more likely to graduate from high school and 19% more likely to enroll in college than Black students who attended the same school but never had a Black teacher. Digging in deeper, they found that the impacts were more profound for Black boys from disadvantaged backgrounds, and that male Black teachers had a larger positive impact on Black boys while female Black teachers had a larger positive impact on Black girls. This is a great example of why it is important to do long-term studies: The fact that it helped Black boys from disadvantaged backgrounds more in the long term was a result that wasn’t mirrored in the short-term test scores.
Interestingly, they found that being assigned to a Black teacher had no long-term impact on white students — undermining a potential policy argument that ensuring Black students have a Black teacher could disadvantage white students.
To ensure that the result wasn’t specific to Tennessee schools or some quirk of Project STAR, the researchers looked at a similar data set for North Carolina students and found the same effects. They also mention in a footnote that a recent study in Texas confirms their findings as well.
As with all good research, this study forces us to ask important follow-up questions. One of them is certainly, “Why?” Or, put another way, what is the mechanism through which Black teachers have a positive outcome on Black elementary students that the students don’t receive from white teachers? The researchers have a few hypotheses, but no definitive answers. They considered the possibility that the Black teachers may have been more experienced than their white peers, but after controlling for the experience of the teachers, they found it had no impact. Somewhat related, they considered whether Black teachers are more skilled at teaching Black students: essentially a greater cultural and language competency. While they couldn’t confirm this, they believe it is possibly a significant factor (though probably not the only one) and one that merits exploration, as it could inform teacher training programs on how to better prepare teachers of all races and ethnicities to be more skilled at successfully teaching Black students.
Another potential factor is biased teacher expectations: Countless studies show that teacher expectations have a significant impact on student outcomes. If Black teachers have higher expectations of Black students, that could contribute to higher student performance.
Finally, they consider whether there is a “role model” effect: Seeing and experiencing a Black teacher with a college degree provides students with strong evidence that a college degree is attainable for them too — and feeds their aspirations.
The researchers don’t shy away from the policy implications of their research, though they point out that they aren’t quite as straightforward as one might think at first glance. Take, for example, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education court decision that forced school districts to racially integrate schools. While it undoubtedly provided students of color access to better-resourced schools and a much wider set of educational opportunities in public schools, if it also meant that fewer Black elementary students experienced a Black teacher (because only students, not teachers, were integrated across a school district), then did it inadvertently also have a negative impact on the number of Black students in those districts who went on to college? To be clear, this isn’t an argument against school integration; rather, it suggests that integrating students in schools is necessary but not sufficient — there is more that must be done to help all students achieve their full potential.
Likewise, one could take away from this work that we need many more Black teachers in schools, to ensure that every Black student gets the benefit of learning from one (or more). But the researchers point out that given that teachers are notoriously paid poorly, if we encourage more Black college graduates to become teachers instead of other professions that pay better, we might exacerbate the already significant racial pay gap between Black and white workers. Obviously, paying all teachers better (arguably, paying them what they’re worth to our kids and to society) would help to mitigate this issue, but the fight for better pay for teachers has been raging, unresolved, for decades, and it’s unlikely that this new research will serve as the tipping point that suddenly makes decent teacher compensation achievable.
That said, the basic finding is simple and actionable: As the researchers put it, “exposure to even one Black teacher in primary school significantly increases the odds that economically disadvantaged Black students aspire to, and enroll in, college.” They also suggest that it’s cause for optimism, as it points to “a path to reducing stubbornly persistent racial attainment gaps.”
Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.
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