Students in urban school districts, regardless of their race or ethnicity, prefer teachers of color to white teachers, a provocative new study found.
The study, published this week in the journal Educational Researcher and authored by two New York University Steinhardt professors, found that students of all races, but particularly students of color, have more favorable perceptions of minority teachers versus white teachers.
The researchers analyzed the Measures of Effective Teaching database, part of a Gates Foundation-funded study of teacher-evaluation methods.That project surveyed student perceptions of their teachers’ instructional practices and compiled the demographic information of both students and teachers. The study focused on students and teachers in grades 4 through 9 in six urban school districts.
The researchers looked at over 50,000 adolescent student reports on 1,680 classroom teachers and found that students rated Latino and black teachers more positively than white teachers, even after controlling for student demographic and academic characteristics, teacher efficacy, and other teacher characteristics. Black students have particularly favorable perceptions of black teachers, as do Asian-American students. Latino students do not have the same strong preference for Latino teachers, the study found.
Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng, a sociologist and assistant professor of international education at NYU Steinhardt and the lead author of the study, said in an interview with Education Week Teacher that the latter finding could be because the category “Latino” encompasses a wide range of ethnicities and cultures, including Mexican, Dominican, and Puerto Rican.
The overall findings, he said, suggest that minority teachers can translate their experiences and identities to form rapports with students of different backgrounds.
The study was motivated by Cherng’s experience as an Asian teacher in a mostly-black middle school in San Francisco. On the first day of school, he said, one of his students asked if he spoke English. He responded jokingly, and the student asked if she had been racist. They proceeded to have a conversation about race, all in the first few minutes of class.
“Students, like all people in the U.S., notice race very quickly,” Cherng said. “They may form those perceptions very quickly, and those might affect how they react to teachers.”
It’s important, he said, for teachers to be able to relate to their students and their experiences—or at least be able to listen from a place of empathy.
Cherng said he has seen white teachers who would tell their students of color, “I know what it’s like,” in reference to particular struggles or slights. But that can be frustrating for students when that’s not the case, Cherng said.
In his situation, he said, he could tell his black students: “I don’t get your life, but I know what it’s like not to see my story on TV. I know what it’s like to not be the mainstream. Just that acknowledgement sometimes can make the world of difference for students.”
In reference to the finding that white students also favored their teachers of color, Cherng said this might be because the study focused on urban districts, where students might be of a lower socio-economic class and not necessarily represented by the mainstream. Also, he noted, the students surveyed were in late elementary and middle grades—"the most traumatic, unsettled time of all of American childhood. All adolescents are struggling to form their identities.”
Earlier this year, a different preliminary study found that black teachers are less likely to punish students of other races with “exclusionary discipline practices,” like suspensions, detention, or expulsions. All teachers are less likely to punish students of their own race with those practices.
Cherng said his findings emphasize the need for increased minority teacher recruitment. Only 18 percent of teachers are of color. He also said that the study suggests a need for better cultural competency training for all teachers—preservice teachers need to learn how to talk about race and how to listen to students’ experiences, he said.
Cherng said when he presented his findings, a white woman in a teacher-preparation program asked if this meant that people like her couldn’t be good teachers.
“That is the opposite of what I want to say,” he said. “If anything, [the findings] say teachers of color on average are doing something different, and that difference is positive. We need to pick up on what they’re doing.”
- Study: Teacher-Prep Programs Need to Deepen Educators’ Racial Awareness
- Colorblind Education Is the ‘Wrong Response’ (Opinion)
- For Preservice Teachers, Lessons on Cultural Sensitivity
- What Is ‘Culturally Competent’ Teaching? (Videos)
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.