Black students in charter schools are more likely to have black teachers than their peers in traditional public schools, which can lead to academic gains in math, a new study shows.
The study published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning think tank that also authorizes charter schools in Ohio, examined data from grades 3 to 5 in North Carolina’s traditional and charter public schools, from 2006-07 through 2012-13.
The findings show that traditional public schools and charter schools serve the same proportion of black students, but charter schools have about 35 percent more black teachers. Black students in charter schools are more than 50 percent more likely to have at least one black teacher than their counterparts in traditional public schools, while white students are equally likely to have at least white teacher in both types of schools.
A growing body of research has found that black students benefit from having black teachers, both academically and socially. Black elementary students performed better in math and reading when they had a teacher who was the same race as them, according to one recent study. Another set of studies found that black students are more likely to both graduate from high school and enroll in college when they have just one black teacher in elementary school.
And black students are more likely to be placed in gifted education programs if they have a black teacher, and less likely to receive suspensions, expulsions, or detentions from black teachers. Research has found that black teachers have higher expectations for black students—and white teachers’ lower expectations for black students can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Teacher diversity in charter schools is an “important but previously unexamined piece of the puzzle,” said Seth Gershenson, the study’s author and an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University.
This study found that overall, same-race teachers boost math performance by almost 2 percent of a test-score standard deviation, which is strongly statistically significant. It’s about the same as a marked improvement—13 percent of a standard deviation—in teacher quality. (Effects on English-language arts scores are smaller and statistically indistinguishable.)
The study found this effect in math performance is larger in charter schools than in traditional public schools, although the difference is not statistically significant due to the relatively small number of charter school students in the sample.
Gershenson also found that in charter schools, the student-teacher race-match effect is more than twice as large for nonwhite students as for white students. There is no such difference in traditional public schools. (Other studies have also found that race-match is more important for black students.)
“I think a lot of that has to do with the sorting of teachers into charter schools,” Gershenson said, noting that many charters have a culture of high expectations. “The teachers themselves might be drawn to those types of environments. ... You might end up with teachers who are recognizing that this diversity thing is a problem and are actively trying to remedy it by going to work in charters that mesh with their vision.”
In other words, he said, there could be a link between charter schools’ “high expectations” culture, and the high expectations teachers of color tend to have for their students of color.
A ‘Pervasive, Robust Result’
Many education studies come out of North Carolina since the state has a large, accessible database of student test scores, teacher demographics, and other information. Gershenson said he would expect to see the results in this study replicated in other states. Still, it’s important to note that charter schools in North Carolina are particularly racially and geographically diverse, whereas charters in other states tend to be concentrated in urban areas.
However, the study’s results don’t vary by school location, enrollment size, or racial makeup of the student population.
“It’s a pretty pervasive, robust result,” Gershenson noted.
Also, North Carolina requires that only half the teachers in charter schools be certified—a rule that might contribute to the higher numbers of teachers of color in those schools. Across the country, black and Hispanic teacher candidates have lower scores on average on certification tests than their white and Asian American counterparts. Some experts attribute that discrepancy to a lack of strong preparation and test anxiety, as well as the high cost of licensure tests.
“Life is full of tradeoffs, and there’s no silver-bullet, magic solution to everything here,” Gershenson said. “Just because the teacher doesn’t have the full certification doesn’t mean they’re necessarily a worse teacher. If you have an opportunity to hire an otherwise-qualified teacher of color who, for whatever reason, doesn’t have the full certification, they can be a huge boon to those students of color in that school.”
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.