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Students May Benefit From Teachers Who Are the Same Race, Study Finds

Students, especially black and low-performing elementary pupils, appear to benefit academically from being taught by a teacher of the same race as they are, according to a new study of Florida test data. (Tip of the hat here to Real Clear Education.)

Policymakers have been concerned for a long time that the teaching force is overwhelmingly white, even as the student population becomes more and more diverse, with half of all K-12 students now estimated to be "minorities." Volumes have been written about the potential benefit for students to be exposed to a more diverse teaching force, but the empirical research backing up the idea is still fairly thin. (The best-known research—and still the only experimental evidence on the topic—dates from 2004.)

The new study, which will appear in the April volume of Economics of Education Review, adds some promising additional findings to the pile.

The study was conducted by by Anna J. Egalite, of the Program on Education Policy & Governance at Harvard University, and two co-authors, Brian Kisida of the University of Arkansas and Marcus A. Winters of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

The researchers examined Florida student test scores in grades 3-10 from 2001-02 through 2008-09 matched to individual teachers, or nearly 10 million "matches" in all for both reading and math. Then, they used a value-added approach to look at the relationship between teacher ethnicity and student performance. For some of the analyses, they controlled for factors like students' eligibility for subsidized meals, prior test scores, and school demographics. 

The results showed an overall positive association when students were matched to a teacher of the same race. They were stronger at the elementary than at the middle or high school level, and stronger in math than in reading. The estimates were generally fairly small, ranging from .004 to .005 of a standard deviation in reading and up to about .008 of a standard deviation in math. 

But when they broke the data down, the researchers found that particular groups of students tended to benefit more. Black students matched with a black teacher, for instance, had gains estimated to be as high as .03 of a standard deviation higher in elementary math. Asian students matched with an Asian teacher, on the other hand, benefited most at the high school level, with effects as high as .05 of a standard deviation in math. 

Low-performing black and white students, here defined as being in the bottom third of student performance, also seemed to get more out of having a same-race teacher than their more-advantaged peers

There was one exception to the overall pattern: Hispanic students, for whom the data sometimes showed a negative correlation from being matched with a Hispanic teacher. But that might be because of the huge diversity in that population, which includes Spanish-speaking students of Caribbean, South American, Mexican, and Central American descent. 

"As a result of the significant heterogeneity of this ethnic group, it is questionable how accurate it is to broadly define matches based solely on the designation of Hispanic," the authors write.

In an interview, Egalite said that she thinks that the academic gains, while overall small, might be only the tip of the iceberg in terms of benefits. "We would anticipate benefits to students' self esteem, self efficacy, and other non-cognitive outcomes," she said. But those are harder things to measure empirically.

Put another way, this study helps answer the "what" question, but not the "why"—why these matches seem to benefit students' achievement, all else equal. 

Meanwhile, a related question: How might policymakers make use of this evidence?

"We're not at all suggesting that a principal sit down with a roster and try to segregate kids by their teachers," Egalite said. "But we do think it has implications for recruitment and retention—figuring out ways to entice these teachers into teaching, and keeping them there." 

See also:

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