Why The U.S. Needs More Minority Teachers

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When it comes to achievement, does it matter if a student and a teacher are the same race? And if so, how much? That’s the essential question posed by a trio of economists in a new working paper, the first to test whether minority instructors have a positive effect on the academic achievement of minority students at the college level.

Their results indicate an emphatic yes, and may hold a partial solution (although a tricky one to enact) to one of the most persistent and vexing problems facing the U.S. education system: the achievement gap between non-minority and minority students. Less than than one-fifth of African-Americans, and less than one-eighth of Latinos between 25 and 29 years-old have a college degree. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 9.6% of full-time instructional faculty at U.S. colleges are black, Latino or Native American. And yet, these groups make up a third of the college-age population.

Here’s the abstract:

This paper uses detailed administrative data from one of the largest community colleges in the United States to quantify the extent to which academic performance depends on students being of similar race or ethnicity to their instructors. To address the concern of endogenous sorting, we use both student and classroom fixed effects and focus on those with limited course enrollment options. We also compare sensitivity in the results from using within versus across section instructor type variation. Given the computational complexity of the 2-way fixed effects model with a large set of fixed effects we rely on numerical algorithms that exploit the particular structure of the model’s normal equations. We find that the performance gap in terms of class dropout and pass rates between white and minority students falls by roughly half when taught by a minority instructor. In models that allow for a full set of ethnic and racial interactions between students and instructors, we find African-American students perform particularly better when taught by African-American instructors.

From a sample of 30,000 students in nearly 21,000 classes, the authors find that the minority achievement gap shrinks in classes taken with underrepresented minority instructors. While minority students are overall more likely to drop a course, less likely to pass a course, and less likely to have a grade of at least a B, these gaps decrease by 2.9 percentage points, 2.8 percentage points, and 3.2  percentage points respectively when assigned to an instructor of similar minority type.

These effects represent roughly  half of the total gaps in classroom outcomes between white and underrepresented minority students. The benefits are largest among black students being taught by black instructors. The class dropout rate relative to whites is 6 percentage points lower for black students when taught by a black  instructor.

So, in theory, according to these results, we could wipe out a sizeable portion of the minority student achievement gap by hiring more minority instructors. Easier said than done of course. And, as the authors point out, any policy with that explicit aim would likely have negative consequences, since students appear to react positively when matched to instructors of a similar race, but negatively when not.

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  1. Eric M. Jones. says:

    First of all I totally agree…BUT:

    How does one remain fair whilst being aware of all the trappings of ingrained cultural values and histories?– Viz.:

    1) You have two sushi chefs: One black Caribbean woman from Jamaica and, and one chubby Japanese-looking guy from San Francisco?

    2) You have two Mercedes mechanics: One named Franz who has a vaguely Austrian accent, and Jose from South of the Border.

    3) You choose from two tax accountants: One Jewish Brooklynite and one person from Nashville, Tennessee.

    4) And don’t get me started on Jazz ensembles. I knew four white Jewish doctors who played at nightspots on weekends. Puleeeeeze…………no……….

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  2. Jeff says:

    I think you’re wrong. Take Texas as an example.The percentage of Black teachers and Black students is about equal. Look at page three of this report: http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/research/pdfs/prr4.pdf .

    Asian students outperform everyone, and Asian teachers are greatly underrepresented.

    The study does not control for teacher grade inflation and cheating. Remember the Atlanta cheating scandal? Underperforming minority schools were caught cheating to pass more Black students. Maybe the study’s minority students did better because their same-race instructors graded them easier than other races. Maybe those teachers even cheated for them.

    In instructional learning without a teacher, as in some online courses, we still find that Blacks achieve at a much lower level.

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    • donnie says:

      Jeff

      You response strikes me as the kind of thing that a not very bright but reasonably well educated, mildly racist middle class white man might write. Not saying that you are any of those things, just that’s the kind of person I’d expect to have written that message. And Judging by the ‘well loved’ status of your response, the readership of freakonomics might not be the most statistically informed, open minded, enlightened bunch of pseudo economists ever to read to the same blog either..

      Anyway, allow me to respond to a few of the points you make…

      First, the proportion of black teachers matches the proportion of black school kids, means nothing unless the black teachers are matched to the black kids. If one in ten teachers is black, unless some form of matching teachers and pupils by color goes on, the chance of any child having a black teacher for a given class will be one in ten. Of course, matching might happen to some degree – eg black teachers being drawn towards schools with more black children – but I’m pretty sure most black kids’ teachers in Texas are not black.

      Second, you mention that Asian kids out perform everyone – so what? Either this study show’s they’ll outperform everyone by more if they’ve got an asian teacher or it doesn’t cover asian students.

      Third, you question whether this is due to black teachers cheating for their kids, based on a few cases of ‘minority schools’ cheating to get black pupils through. Was there any evidence that the teachers at these schools were also black? If so, was there any evidence to suggest the practice is wide spread? And did you consider that white teachers might treat white kids more favorably or black kids less favorably?

      Fourth, you site minority kids performance on on-line courses being worse relative to white kids’ as evidence to dispute this study. The study doesn’t say that minority kids with a minority teacher do better than white kids, just that they do better than they do with a teacher not from their minority.

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      • Matt says:

        Donnie,

        Another point against this article that Jeff didn’t mention is it seems to make no claims of data regarding white students under black teachers. Following their hypothesis, white students should suffer at the hands of black teachers.

        Jeff’s comment is getting ‘likes’ because this kind of study follows the general trend of making excuses for why minority students do worse in school. This problem, in my opinion, is better explained by other socioeconomic pressures (general empathy towards education in the black community, lack of parental support, personal financial issues).

        Getting more black teachers into schools is a good thing though. At the very least it will present young black students who might otherwise view higher education as an unreachable goal, with an example of how it can easily be done. But attributing the drop out rates of minorities to just the difference in ethnicity doesn’t make much sense.

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      • donnie says:

        Alright Matt

        First of all, I agree with your analysis of why black kids do worse at school but…

        As I pointed out above, this article isn’t disputing that point. It’s just saying that black kids do better with black teachers not that they do well per se. It’s not syaing black kids drop out because they’ve not got black teachers, it’s saying black kids drop out a bit less when they have black teachers.

        This is my problem with Jeff and his ilk, they make reactionary responses to articles they don’t even seem to understand. Article says black kids do better with black teachers… they percieve this as ‘making excuses’ for black people and jump to make a bunch of invalid arguments as to why the articles wrong.

        Making invalid arguments to back up your point of view, seems to me to be the definition of prejudice. And in this case, I can’t really see who their prejudice against if not ethnic minorities. Hence why I said racist…

        Also. I don’t the articles hypothesis really says anything about how white kids should do with minority teachers, just about how minorities do with matching minorities. Could be they do better with white teachers, could be they do better with minority teachers.

        Cheers, Donnie

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  3. Mike B says:

    How do we know that these students are actually completing the coursework to an objective standard and not being allowed to slide through by a sympathetic instructor of the same ethnic group? As I am sure non-minority instructors have less empathy for the circumstances of minority students, minority instructors could have an over abundance of empathy. Someone should arrange an experiment that can compensate for these biases and determines if students are actually learning more.

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    • tiffany says:

      “How do we know that these students are actually completing the coursework to an objective standard and not being allowed to slide through by a sympathetic instructor of the same ethnic group?”

      How do we know that the same isn’t already happening with white students of white teachers?

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      • Enter your name says:

        Or upper-middle-class teachers letting upper-middle-class kids slide, or victims of child abuse letting victims of child abuse slide, or Aggie-fan teachers letting Aggie-fan students slide, or any other combination that might result in a teacher identifying sympathetically with a student.

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  4. Roger S says:

    Straight solution is segregation. By ensuring a black teacher’s class is 100% black, and white teacher has a 100% white class, every teacher’s race is perfectly aligned with all their students.

    This will not end well.

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  5. Chad says:

    So what do we do with a class made up of White, African-American, Hispanic, Asian and other students? Sure, we can hire more minority teachers, but are we going to segregate our classes?

    Do white students learn better from white teachers? If so, then we would have a net negative effect if we hired a minority teacher for a class that is majority white.

    This is an interesting result, but I think the answer is much more complex than just “hire minority teachers”.

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  6. @DWDevelopments says:

    I too agree with the articles point of view, and would like to add this for consideration: It may well be that the race factors in by cultural alignments and understandings, but it could also be that minority teachers maybe working harder because they are minority teachers. We all know that race is an issue still today and until it is a complete non-issue minorities have to work harder than their colleagues. It may be their hard work that may be closing the gap along with culture and racial alignments. As for keeping male teachers in the classroom, minority or otherwise, pay scales have to change. Teaching is the BEST career you can ever have, if you have the patience and dedication, but it is not a career that will provide for a household with wife and 2.3 kids and the family dog, it is just not going to happen. I have taught for 11yrs and with the economy and layoffs, I am now moving to self-employment (Thanks Dan Miller!) What most people may or may not know is the business side of teaching is really contract work. Each and every year you teach is just that a 1 year gig, you have no more of a guarantee than that of 1 yr and when you start to earn the education equivalent of big bucks it does not matter if you are Teacher of the Year your salary is a liability. And it is not about what you can do for the kids. Education is moving away from its primary focus: The Kids. It is becoming or has become more business like than anything with states removing mandatory ratios (fire marshal should be checking into that one), letting go of experience in favor of smaller salaries, and then making sure that good money follows bad decisions (most superintendents contracts have pay me to leave clauses). I’ll end with this, I will be back in education after I take care of myself first, flight attendant motto: “Place the oxygen mask on yourself first, then secure the children”

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    • Jeff says:

      “We all know that race is an issue still today and until it is a complete non-issue minorities have to work harder than their colleagues.”

      Not really. Affirmative action and EEOC laws make it much more risky to fire minority employees. the government effectively mandates a quota for minority employees, giving them a guaranteed job pool. This creates incentives to work less not more.

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  7. Tony says:

    How many asian students have never had an asian teacher? I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by dozens of the best teachers in my childhood – which meant I had a lot of Russian and Jewish teachers across a multitude of disciplines. All else equal, are they more effective? Sure, but this is not a scalable solution

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  8. Christopher Browen says:

    Unfortunately, that final paragraph points to an issue that would stir rather more controversy…

    In order to get the “positive reaction” of matching students to instructors of a similar race, what needs to get implemented is… Institutionalized segregation. Which is something that people have been struggling to try to destroy for 40-odd years.

    Somehow I don’t see a happy outcome here.

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