Equity & Diversity

Want to Draw More Students to Advanced Courses? Staff Them With Black Teachers

By Christina A. Samuels — February 26, 2020 3 min read
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Black students are more likely to enroll in advanced coursework—honors classes, Advanced Placement courses, or International Baccalaureate classes—when a black teacher is among the educators teaching that course, according to a study of enrollment trends and data gathered from thousands of students in North Carolina.

The impact, about a 2 percentage point increase in the rates of black students taking advanced courses, is modest. But intriguingly, students of other races and ethnicities were also more likely to enroll in advanced courses if one of the teachers was black. In fact, the impact on those students was about as strong as it was on black students.

A number of studies have shown the benefit to black students from having black teacher, said Cassandra M.D. Hart, an associate professor of educational policy at the University of California, Davis and the author of “An Honors Teacher Like Me: Effects of Access to Same-Race Teachers on Black Students’ Advanced-Track Enrollment and Performance.”

But the effects on students who are not black was a surprising finding, she said.

Hart’s research could not answer what might be driving these results. But other studies might provide part of the answer, she said. For example, Hart cited a 2016 paper showing that adolescents view Latino and black teachers more favorably than they do white teachers. This held true even when the students were a different race or ethnicity than their teachers, though black students have particularly positive impressions of black teachers.

Related story: Districts Struggle to Hire Black Teachers. Is the Solution Hiring More Black Principals?

Taken together, the findings suggest that more is going on than just students feeling comfortable with teachers who share their same ethnic or racial background.

“If students are viewing teachers of color broadly as especially inviting or especially positive, that is one possible pathway,” Hart said in an interview.

Hart’s research drew from North Carolina data collected between 2007 and 2013, which accounted for nearly 266,000 black students. She focused on four subject areas where students would have an opportunity to choose between a regular and advanced track: English language arts, math, social studies, and science.

The students were not guaranteed to have a black teacher just because one was on the teaching staff of a given subject, Hart said. But her study found that black teachers were not randomly assigned students, either. Overall, black teachers of advanced courses were more likely to be assigned students who had lower test scores in 8th grade than teachers who are not black.

Hart found that having a black teacher meant that the percentage of black students enrolled in advanced courses rose from about 27 percent to around 29 percent. The shift appeared to be driven by higher-achieving black students choosing to take advanced coursework, the study found. Black students were not more likely to pass a class if they had a black teacher, but the overall advanced coursework pass rate for black students did also increase modestly, by about 1.5 percentage points.

This study looked only at specific courses. So, there’s no evidence that black teachers in advanced English courses influenced whether at a student would take advanced math, for example.

For school administrators, one takeaway is to assign black teachers to teach advanced coursework.

But in addition to the possible benefits from that shift, Hart’s study also found that black students were slightly less likely to enroll in advanced classes if black teachers are only in the “regular” track.

“That’s a situation to try to avoid—where the regular track is the only place a black student can have access to a black teacher,” she said.

Image:SDI Productions/Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.