School & District Management

Study: Having Just One Black Teacher Can Up Black Students’ Chances of Going to College

By Madeline Will — November 12, 2018 5 min read
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If a black student has just one or two black teachers in elementary school, that student is significantly more likely to enroll in college, a new Johns Hopkins University study has found.

Black students who had just one black teacher by 3rd grade were 13 percent more likely to enroll in college, while those who had two black teachers were 32 percent more likely, the study found. These findings are a continuation of the 2017 study that found that a low-income black student’s probability of dropping out of high school is reduced by 29 percent if he or she has one black teacher in grades 3-5.

The new study was released in conjunction with another study (from much of the same team of researchers) finding that teachers’ beliefs about a student’s college potential can become self-fulfilling prophecies. The study found that black teachers are more likely than white teachers to have higher expectations for black students. Both studies were published as working papers by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

“There are these frustratingly persistent attainment gaps between the races, and we want to close these gaps,” said co-author Nicholas Papageorge, an assistant professor of economics at Johns Hopkins. These gaps should be closed because of the inherent inequity, Papageorge said, but also because it’s costly for a society to have large swaths of its population not attend college. College enrollment among black young adults lags behind that of white, Asian, and Hispanic students, according to federal data.

“It’s one thing to say kids don’t go to college because they don’t have the ability to or the money to, but it seems really awful and inefficient if kids aren’t going to college because they don’t think they’re supposed to or because they don’t have role models,” he said. “They’re making decisions based on bad information, and that’s no good.”

For the study on the effects of same-race teachers on college enrollment, researchers looked through longitudinal data from Tennessee and North Carolina, and found similar patterns in both states. For the study on teacher expectations, researchers looked at data from the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002, a nationally representative longitudinal study that followed 8,400 10th grade students.

Black Teachers’ Impact

Why do black teachers matter so much for black students’ college enrollment? The researchers tested two theories—that black teachers are more skilled than their white counterparts at instructing black students, and that black teachers serve as role models for their black students.

Scholars say that black teachers often engage in culturally relevant teaching, which is beneficial to students of color. That might include using cultural references in instruction or showcasing pride in one’s racial identity and a sense of affiliation with the larger black community.

Black teachers also serve as “examples to these kids of what the black middle class looks like,” Papageorge said.

Theoretically, he said, black students need just one black teacher to inspire them (the “role model effect”). And it’s true that having a single black teacher does make a difference in terms of college enrollment. But when black students have two black teachers in elementary school, they are even more likely to enroll in college—signaling that instruction matters, too.

The dataset did not allow the researchers to see if the positive effect continues to grow if a black student has more than two black teachers, Papageorge said.

Teacher Expectations

The study on teachers’ expectations looked at math and reading teachers’ predictions about how far students would go in school. Researchers found that while teachers are generally overly optimistic about the college potential for all students, white teachers are systematically less optimistic about black students than white ones.

“Black kids are missing out on optimism that everyone else gets,” Papageorge said.

When a black teacher and a white teacher predict the outcomes of the same black student, the black teacher typically has higher expectations for the student.

And higher teacher expectations matter, the researchers found. When a 10th grade teacher is optimistic about a student’s future, that leads to a higher grade-point average in 12th grade and more time spent on homework—the student could be putting in greater effort in response to those expectations. Also, students tend to have higher expectations about their own educational attainment. (It’s important to note that correlation does not equal causation; the student might have higher expectations of his own future because of his high GPA.)

Policy Implications

In a statement, Papageorge had said the studies both “underscore the importance of gaps in information, expectations, and thus, aspirations.”

Just 7 percent of U.S. teachers are black, compared to about 15 percent of students. Researchers have said that the teacher diversity gap is a tough problem to fix, mainly because teachers of color leave the profession at higher rates than their white peers.

Papageorge said that the number of black teachers would need to double to properly align the demographics of the workforce with the student body population. But recruiting more black college graduates into the teaching profession is a challenge, because it would require those professionals to take a pay cut: The median earnings for African Americans who are not teachers is roughly $49,000, while the median salary for black teachers is $45,000.

“We’re basically asking the black community of college graduates to give up $1 billion a year in earnings in order to solve this problem,” Papageorge said. “We’re widening the wage gap in order to fix the education gaps.”

He said one possible solution would be to reconsider black teachers’ roles in schools so they can reach more black students. Black teachers and other black professionals can serve as role models without teaching students for a full year, Papageorge said.

Another idea, he said, is to train white teachers to embrace a culturally relevant pedagogy and maintain high expectations for all students. Education Week has reported before about colleges of educations that are training their preservice teachers, who are predominately white women, in cultural sensitivity.

Image via Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.