Of the 3.3 million teachers in American public elementary and secondary schools in 2012, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics, 82 percent were white, and just 7 percent were Black. It’s taken as conventional wisdom in many quarters that one of the reasons so many Black children, especially Black males, suffer in school is because not enough of them are taught by Black teachers. But how do Black teachers make a difference to Black children?
Blacks Teachers Treat Them Better
Researchers Kenneth Meier and Joseph Stewart found that African-American students scored higher on standardized achievement tests in the presence of African-American teachers. They surmised that Black teachers may be more empathetic toward Black students. Other researchers found that although Black teachers were no more likely to praise young Black students than white teachers, they were much less likely to respond negatively to them than the white teachers.
They Understand the Students’ Culture
Black teachers can rescue Black students in predominantly white school settings. Some research indicates that minority students fare worse in schools with mostly white students because the culture of learning tends to favor those in the majority, which can have a devastating impact on the education fortunes of Black students. Esther Quintero, a senior policy fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute, a nonprofit education think tank, says the disproportionately high suspension rates for Black students could be alleviated by keeping more teachers of color in the classroom.
They Can Help Alleviate Poor Performance Related to ‘Stereotype Threat’
Claude M. Steele’s theory of “stereotype threat” suggests another way that student performance might respond to a teacher’s race: Black students perceive that a stereotype regarding their ability will come into play when they are taught by a white teacher. In his experiments at Stanford, Steele had groups of students take tests comprising the most difficult items on the verbal GRE exam. When told beforehand that the test was a laboratory problem-solving task unrelated to ability, Black and white students performed similarly. However, Black students performed relatively worse when told that the test was diagnostic of ability. The racial differences were similar when researchers merely asked students to fill out a pretest demographic questionnaire that inquired into their race, a minor manipulation of the stereotype threat. But this can be reduced when a Black teacher is administering the test.
Black Teachers Will Spend More Time With Them
A limited body of experimental evidence does suggest that teachers, in allocating class time, interacting with students, and designing class materials, are more favorably disposed toward students who share their racial or ethnic background. For example, a 1979 study by Marylee Taylor placed white teachers in a teaching environment where they could not observe the student directly. Taylor found that the teachers provided less coaching and briefer, less positive feedback when told beforehand that the student was Black. Similarly, studies based on observations from actual classrooms often find that Black students with white teachers receive less attention, are praised less, and are scolded more often than their white counterparts.
They Can Raise Student Test Scores
Tennessee’s well-known experiment in reducing class size, Project STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio), found that among Black children, having a Black teacher for a year was associated with a statistically significant 3 to 5 percentile-point increase in math scores. On the reading test, the scores of Black pupils with Black teachers were 3 to 6 percentile points higher. Meanwhile, white pupils of both genders placed with a white teacher scored 4 to 5 percentile points higher in math. In reading, white boys had scores 2 to 6 points higher when learning from a teacher of their own race, but for white girls, no significant differences could be detected. Some studies have even found that the test scores of Black male students increase when they are taught by Black men.
They Can Serve as Role Models
Several studies in the late 1980s and early ’90s, for instance, found that teachers of color can boost the self-worth of their minority students, partly by exposing them to professionals who look like them. Writer Alexandria Neason writes movingly about the effect it had on her when she finally got a Black teacher in the fourth grade at a Tennessee school where she was one of the few Black students. “As a kid, I saw my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Bishop, for more hours a day than my own mother,” she writes. “She was my mirror. She gifted me an image of myself.”
They Can Reduce Negative Consequences of Grouping and Tracking
Having a Black teacher may result in Black students being less likely to be placed in lower-performing groups in the classroom. Once Black students are placed in lower groups, they get stuck there — researchers have found that Black students were less likely than white students to be reassigned to a higher ability group during the school year. Researchers Christy Lleras and Claudia Rangel from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that grouping may exacerbate achievement gaps among African-American students in the earliest years of schooling. Within nongrouped classrooms, they found the reading gap between students in lower and higher reading proficiency classrooms actually disappears by third grade. That is, among African-American students who are not grouped for reading instruction, there are essentially no differences in the reading achievement gains among students in lower reading proficiency and higher reading proficiency classrooms by the third grade.