Teacher with young students in a classroom

Public Policy Research: Impact of Race and K-12 Education

By The School of Public Affairs

Research has shown that when minority students have teachers of the same race, they tend to perform better on several metrics, such as test scores and graduation rates. Nathan Favero, Assistant Professor in American University’s Department of Public Administration and Policy is exploring potential causes of this correlation and the implication for future teacher recruitment.

“While there are many ideas about the mechanisms causing this relationship, there’s not a whole lot of certainty,” says Professor Favero. “Our research is looking at the impact of Latino teachers in schools, since although they are less underrepresented than black teachers, there are still many Latino kids being taught by white teachers.”

Several common mechanisms suggest why students may perform better when taught by teachers of the same race. The role model effect posits that students are inspired to perform better because they are more able to identify with their teachers. One model suggests differences in how minority teachers teach, from utilizing more culturally accessible examples in math problems to incorporating more relevant cultural references that make students feel included. Another possibility is that minority teachers are less susceptible to racial bias and therefore less likely to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of low performance.

Looking beyond the classroom

Much of the research to date has been at the classroom level, focusing on individual teachers and their students. Because of his work in organizational research, Professor Favero is exploring the relationship at the institutional level. One of the key questions is whether simply having minority teachers within the school building makes a difference.

“While we don’t really have strong evidence yet, it seems that there’s some indication that just having more Latino teachers in the building is predictive of students doing better,” says Professor Favero, “even if there aren’t more Latino teachers in their specific grade.”

His research is exploring possible reasons for this correlation. One answer is that diversity among the teaching staff may influence school policy or may lead to collaboration that positively impacts the student experience. Another, from a top-down approach, is that administrators who more actively recruit – or are more inclined to hire – Latino teachers are also more likely to create a school culture conducive to success among Latino students.

Considering policy implications

It’s clear that increasing diversity among teachers, especially in areas with high minority populations, is essential to improving outcomes for minority students. This may begin in the classroom with teachers encouraging students to enter the profession. Policy makers may want to explore implementing policies encouraging undergraduate education programs to actively enroll minority students.

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