Student Well-Being

‘Racial Mismatch’ May Affect Which Students Are in Class

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 23, 2015 3 min read
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If you’re a boy of color in elementary school, your likelihood of being suspended or missing class rises significantly if you are assigned to a teacher of another race.

American University researchers Seth Gershenson and Stephen Holt dig into how racial differences between teachers and students may play out in student behavior in a new discussion paper for the German Institute for the Study of Labor.

It’s the latest in mounting evidence of the challenges that can occur when there are racial, gender, and cultural differences between teachers and students. Back in September, I wrote about a prior study by Gershenson, Holt, and Johns Hopkins University researcher Nicholas Papageorge that found teachers were significantly more likely to believe a student would graduate high school and go on to college if they were both of the same race than if their races were different—particularly if the teacher was white and the student black.

The current study takes another approach, using state longitudinal administrative data from South Carolina. The American University researchers in tracked nearly 990,000 elementary school students from 2006 to 2012. They compared students’ absenteeism and suspension rates to both their own classmates in a given year and changes from year to year, as the students experienced teachers of different races.

Both suspensions and chronic absenteeism—missing 10 percent or more of the school year—were rare among students, but there were significant differences. Boys were more likely than girls, and black and Hispanic students were more likely than white or Asian students to miss school or be suspended, Gershenson and Holt found.

On average, having a teacher of a different race slightly increased the average number of days a student was absent or times he or she was suspended. But the increased risk that minority boys would miss or be put out of class was huge. A black boy was 30 percent more likely to be suspended when taught by a white woman than when taught by a black woman. Having a teacher of a different race accounted for a third of the racial gap in suspensions, and 1/6th of the racial gap in chronic absenteeism.

“The effects of racial mismatch aren’t widespread on everybody, but for a relatively small subset of students, there are really huge effects,” Gersenson, an education policy economist at American University, said. “Some students are really on the margin of [negative] behaviors, and something small like having a teacher who looks like you might be enough to tip them over into not doing them.”

The racial mismatch could also affect how teachers interact with parents on sensitive issues, such as an elementary student’s repeated absences.

“Especially in primary school, the parents play an important role in getting the students to school,” he said. “The relationships and conversations between teachers and parents may be a little more relaxed, a little more direct and meaningful among same-race parents.”

While the researchers suggested their fidings bolster the case for hiring and holding onto a more diverse teaching force, “The sheer numbers mean we can’t hire a perfectly representative teaching force,” Gershenson said. “So, the next best step is to implement some of these interventions ... that mitigate unconscious bias and generally improve the relationships between teachers and students and students’ families.”

For example, schools that include co-teaching or pair teams of teachers with one cohort of students could increase students’ exposure to teachers of both their own and other races, Gershenson said, but it is not known yet whether having one teacher of the same race would provide a buffering effect.


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.

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