Effect on student performance

February 6, 2020

There are several ramifications to the large disparity in race and ethnicity of students compared to teachers. In a survey conducted by Bark in January, 60 percent of black, Native American, Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian students and 36 percent of Hispanic and Latino students self-reported that the lack of teacher racial diversity has negatively affected their learning experience. Conversely, only 14 percent of white students could say the same.

According to Dr. Seth Gershenson from American University and Dr. Nicholas Papageorge from Johns Hopkins University, when a black child has a black teacher between third and fifth grade, his or her eventual intent of attending a four-year college goes up by 19 percent, as reported from the IZA Labor Institute of Economics. According to this study, students are more successful in school if they have a teacher of the same ethnicity. 

Research and intuitive sense suggest explanations for this phenomenon. One explanation is the “role model effect,” as Papageorge calls it, where seeing an individual that looks like oneself in a professional setting influences the level of education people aspire to achieve. In other words, if people directly interact with a successful individual, they believe they have those same possibilities and can reach similar achievements.

Based on his experiences in education, Assistant Superintendent and Head of Human Resources Lars Christensen supports this notion.

“I do think that seeing a successful person [of color] standing in front of [students] matters…I think it serves as motivation, like, ‘Hey, I can do that too.’ I think it definitely improves performance, [and for me], it’s anecdotal, but I believe with all my heart that it’s equally important for our large numbers of white students to see that,” Christensen said.

As a Latina teacher, Flores also carries this belief.

“If you’re constantly looking at white teachers, then your only association is with white people. And so you perhaps might start minimizing your abilities, or thinking ‘I can’t do this or I can’t do that’ because you’ve never seen an example for yourself,” Flores said.

Ryo Weng and Drake Goodman
The “Role Model Effect” is one possible explanation for why students benefit from learning from a teacher of their same race.

Another reason why students perform better with a teacher of the same race is the expectations of teachers. A study conducted by Dr. Patrick B. McGrady from the University of New Haven and Dr. John R. Reynolds from Georgia Institute of Technology found that white teachers tend to collectively view black students more negatively and Asian students more positively within a diversified classroom. These presumptions affect how teachers educate and discipline their students. Additionally, black students report that they feel happier at school, are more cared for by their teachers and have better communication when their teacher is also black. 

According to Flores, a lack of racial diversity among teachers can lead to an ethnocentric mindset among students, which is detrimental to their future after high school.

“You need to be racially aware because these students are going to leave and they’re going to go to communities that aren’t necessarily extremely white. You need to know how to work with people and they’re going to work in jobs that aren’t one heterogeneous race,” Flores said.

Still, not all minority students have been affected by learning from someone who does not look like them. Senior Nikita Khandheria attended an Indian and International school in India before attending Redwood, and she does not feel inhibited by the almost all-white teaching staff she has had for the majority of her educational career. Rather than emphasize racial diversity among teachers, Khandheria prefers intellectual and experiential diversity.

“A lot of my teachers have been white, but they are all from different places…I feel like I’ve always gotten an experience where there is an integration of a lot of different cultures and types of people where nobody really thinks the same,” Khanderia said.

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