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Does Teacher Diversity Matter for Students’ Learning?

Does Teacher Diversity Matter for Students’ Learning?

As students have returned to school, they have been greeted by teachers who, more likely than not, are white women. That means many students will be continuing to see teachers who are a different gender than they are, and a different skin color. Does it matter? Yes, according to a significant body of research: Students…


As students have returned to school, they have been greeted by teachers who, more likely than not, are white women. That means many students will be continuing to see teachers who are a different gender than they are, and a different skin color.

Does it matter? Yes, according to a significant body of research: Students tend tobenefit from having teachers who look like them, especially nonwhite students.

The homogeneity of teachers is probably one of the contributors, the research suggests, to the stubborngenderandracegaps in student achievement: Over all, girls outperform boys(with an exception in math in certain districts), and white students outperform those who are black and Hispanic.

Yet the teacher work force isbecoming more female: 77 percent of teachers in public and private elementary and high schools are women, up from 71 percent three decades ago. The teaching force has grown more racially diverse in that period, but it’s still 80 percent white, down from 87 percent.

There are many things that contribute to children’s academic achievement, including teachers’ experience and training; school funding and zoning; and families’ incomes and home environment. But studies have shown that teacher diversity can also make a difference in students’ performance and their interest in school.

It’s particularly true for boys, and black boys. Research has found that they are more affected than girls by disadvantages, likepovertyandracism, and by positive influences, likehigh-quality schoolsandrole models. Yet they are least likely to have had a teacher that looks like them.

“We find that the effect is really driven by boys,” said Seth Gershenson, an economist studying education policy at American University. “In the elementary school setting, for black children and especially disadvantaged black children, the effect of having even just one black teacher is fairly big and robust and a real thing.”

When black children had a black teacher between third and fifth grades, boys were significantly less likely to later drop out of high school, and both boys and girls were more likely to attend college, Mr. Gershenson and his colleagues found ina large study last year. The effect was strongest for children from low-income families. The study included 106,000 students who entered third grade in North Carolina from 2001 to 2005, and it followed them through high school. There wasno effecton white children when they had a black teacher.

Teachers’ gender does not necessarily have a big effect duringelementary schoolbut seems to makemore of a differencewhen children are older. Then, girls do better with a female teacher and boys with a male one, said Thomas Dee, a professor of education at Stanford.

When eighth graders had a female teacher instead of amaleone, boys fell behind girls by the equivalent of three and a half months of learning, according to awell-regarded studyhe wrote, which compared the effect of two teachers of different genders on the same students. When students and teachers were the same gender, teachers also had more positive impressions of students, and students looked forward more to the subject. The study used Department of Education data on 25,000 eighth graders from 1,000 schools.

In high school and college math and science courses, studieshave shownthat when women have a female instructor, they get higher grades,participate morein class and aremore likelyto continue to pursue the subject.

Researchers say it’s not entirely clear why teachers’ gender and racemake a difference; it’s likely to be a combination of things. Students tend to be inspired by role models they can relate to. Also,teachers sometimes treat students differentlybased on their own backgrounds and stereotypes. Social scientists call thisimplicit bias, when stereotypes influence people’s thinking, often unconsciously.

A variety of research, for instance, has shown that teachers tend to assess black students differently from white students.Preschool teachersjudge black children more harshly for the same behavior. White teachers areless likelythan black teachers to assign black students to gifted and talented programs even if their test scores match those of white students. When black students had both a white and black teacher, the black teachers consistently hadhigher expectationsfor the children’s potential.

Teachers’ biases can end up becoming self-fulfilling prophecy, Mr. Gershensonhas found. “The high expectations actually motivate kids to do better,” he said. “Black students are hurt by that lack of optimism that white kids get, and black kids with black teachers rise to meet their expectations.”

Sometimes teachers underestimate students of their race or gender, suggesting that they have internalized stereotypes about their own group and that white students may not experience negative effects from having nonwhite teachers.

A new study, not yet published, found that math teachers favored boys over girls, and white students over black or Hispanic students — and thatfemale teachers were biased in favor of boysandthat nonwhite teachers were the most biased in favor of white students.

“These results indicate that enduring cultural biases may have long residual effects on stigmatized groups,” said Yasemin Copur-Gencturk, one of the authors and an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California.

Long term, the evidence suggests it would make a difference totrain and hiremore diverse teachers. But researchers say there’s also something that schools can do immediately, with the teachers they already have: teach them about their biases and stereotypes. It can lead to fairer treatment of students.

The research shows that no matter their demographics, teachers can overcome some of the effects of bias,Mr. Dee said.He summed up the interventions this way: “Signal to students your deep faith in their capacity to learn, coupled with your high expectations that they’ll do great things, full stop.”

It’s surprisingly effective and simple to do, social scientists have shown.One studyfound that merely informing teachers about their stereotypes closed gaps in grading. Anhourlong online tutorialfor teachers hashalvedsuspension rates for black students, after training educators on how to value students’ perspectives and view misbehavior as a learning opportunity.

Another strategy is coaching teachers on how their language can unintentionally signal to students that they can’t excel. Teachers are taught to convey to students that intelligence is not fixed, but built through hard work, and to talk about each student’s value and belonging in the classroom.

Retaining current teachers is also important, researchers say. More qualified people would stay in the profession if the jobs had better pay, benefits and support. Nonwhite teachers in schools with poor resources are atparticular riskof burning out.

“It also matters just to have a really good teacher,” Mr. Dee said. “We don’t want to lose sight of that as we support diversity.”

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