Race: Does the Race of a Teacher Impact Student Performance? Does the Race of a School Leader Impact Teacher Effectiveness?

(Five years ago I wrote a blog musing on the impact of the race of a teacher/school leader on student performance. New York City, New York State and advocates nationally are called for increases in numbers of black teachers, especially black males. Schools of education are including “white privilege,” “culturally relevant pedagogy” and “stereotype threat” into course curriculum.  I have reposted an updated version of the original post)

 A federal court judge in a scathing decision ordered the New York Fire Department (FDNY) to change their hiring practices to integrate the work force. Forty years ago the Court established a “disparate impact test” in the Griggs v Duke Power Co. decision,

“What is required by Congress is the removal of artificial, arbitrary, and unnecessary barriers to employment when the barriers operate invidiously to discriminate on the basis of racial or other impermissible classification.”

Since race has no impact on the effectiveness of a firefighter management must institute hiring practices that do not discriminate against protected groups.

Race is a highly sensitive issue:  the subtext of every conversation is race, gender and class. We shy away from discussing race, we fear stepping on toes, being called a “racist,” (or a sexist, or promoting class warfare); ideally we should be engaging in the difficult conversations.

In a graduate education class I was teaching a student expressed, “All whites are racists; the question is how they respond to their racism.” Some were offended, others agreed while many were confused. Observing the students as student teachers was enlightening: a few tried to “relate” by using what they assumed was ghetto language, others were aloof and simply taught the subject matter, a few, very few, managed to gain the respect and engagement of the students.

I know black male teachers who have changed the lives of generations of black students and have met black teachers who reviled their students. One of my black students occasionally references  on Facebook what he learned in my class twenty-five years ago.

What does research say about the impact of the race of the teacher on student achievement?

The education hierarchy is data-obsessed; we collect seemingly infinite bits of data and base every meaningful decision on that data: the granting of tenure, the closing of schools, annual teacher ratings, etc.

The bureaucracy has not collected data relating student achievement to the race of the teacher. In fact there is surprisingly little research in this area.

Dee S. Thomas of Swarthmore College, in a much quoted article  writes,

“… we actually know very little about how differences between a teacher’s race and those of her students affect the learning environment. This study makes use of data from a randomized field trial conducted in Tennessee to produce higher-quality information on this controversial subject than has been available previously.”

“The results are troubling. Black students learn more from black teachers and white students from white teachers, suggesting that the racial dynamics within classrooms may contribute to the persistent racial gap in student performance, at least in Tennessee.”

Thomas goes on to warn us, “… the most important caveat is that this study tells us little about why the racial match between students and teachers seems to matter.”

So, the race of the teacher seems to matter, although we don’t know why. It could be the training of the teacher, it could be the method of assigning students to classes, or we could look at the work of Claude Steele.

In an iconic 1992 article Steele raises the issue of stigma,

“I have long suspected a particular culprit—a culprit that can undermine black achievement as effectively as a lock on a schoolhouse door. The culprit I see is stigma, the endemic devaluation many blacks face in our society and schools.

This status is its own condition of life, different from class, money, culture. It is capable, in the words of the late sociologist Erving Goffman, of ‘breaking the claim’ that one’s human attributes have on people. I believe that its connection to school achievement among black Americans has been vastly underappreciated.”

We may speculate on the impact of the race match of students and teachers; data is interesting, troubling, but does not allow us to draw statistically significant conclusions.

What is the impact of the race of the school leader on teachers?

A just released study  from the University of Missouri is enlightening,

“Teachers are substantially more likely to stay in schools run by a principal of the same race …. Teachers who share the same race as their principal … report higher job satisfaction, particularly in schools with African-American principals.”

“This association may be driven by differences in how such schools are managed, given that teachers who share the same race as their principal report higher levels of administrative support and more recognition than other teachers report.”

* White teachers with white principals received more money in supplemental salaries, such as stipends for coaching or sponsoring clubs, than African-American teachers with white principals.

* In schools with African-American principals, the supplemental salary rates were roughly the same.

* African-American teachers reported much higher rates of intangible benefits, such as administrative support and encouragement, classroom autonomy and recognition for good job performance, when they worked for an African-American principal. The rates were roughly the same for all teachers under white principals.

* The data shows race plays a significant role in the principal-teacher relationship, “It appears that African-American teachers generally have a more positive experience when the principal is of the same race.”

Keiser (the primary researcher) says that previous research has shown that minority teachers improve the educational experience of minority students. Because of this, Keiser believes that her study shows the importance for maintaining the diversity of principals within schools as well.

“Our results illustrate that an important factor in maintaining the racial diversity of teachers is the diversity of the principals that supervise these teachers.  We hope these findings could provide justification for policymakers to undertake targeted at increasing the flow of minority teachers into the principal pipeline.”

Over the Bloomberg-Klein years the percent of minority teachers in New York declined due to the reliance on Teacher for America whose teachers are predominantly white. Principals are selected either through the Principals’ Academy, the Aspiring Principals programs, or, in some instances are promoted from assistant principal positions. The NYC Department has a “principal exam” which moves candidates into the principal selection pool.

Observationally very few of the Academy or Aspiring Principals are Afro-American males.

Does it matter?

Should the Department make special efforts to include minority candidates in the candidate pool? Should they have an informal “Rooney Rule“?

We must not shy away from difficult questions; an ostrich-like “head in the sand” reliance on data is foolish and not productive. We have to address difficult, troubling and politically sensitive issues. Yes, I have worked with highly effective white superintendents and principals in 100% Afro-American districts and schools and totally ineffective Afro-American principals in 100% Afro-American schools.  I can’t remember an Afro-American principal in a predominantly white school.

We live in a “Closing the Achievement Gap” education world. Schools, school leaders and teachers are “measured” by the extent to which the school is “proficient,” and “proficiency” is defined by scores on standardized tests.

Poverty, class, race, funding, ethnicity, school leaders and teachers all enter the equation. We cannot throw up our hands and blame any of the above.  Too many of us in today’s environment are in the “blame game.” The self-styled education reformers blame teachers, teachers may blame poverty, advocates blame funding inadequacies, and issues of race and class hover unresolved.

We live an increasingly diverse world, we are moving toward a “majority minority” nation. Diversity is a complex term. The New York City school system is only fifteen percent white and the overwhelming majority of whites live in white enclaves (Staten Island, Bay Ridge, Riverdale, etc.)  The other eighty-five percent are Afro-American, both American and Caribbean, Asian from China, Korea and other nations and Hispanics from over a dozen nations; all with distinct cultural mores and antagonisms towards other ethnicities. Add the rapidly increasing numbers of inter-racial marriages and recognize that New York City, and many other cities across the nation are both melting pots, cauldrons of ethnicities, some merging, others bubbling. Our teachers and school leaders should reflect the world around them; our diverse student body deserves a diverse teaching corp.

Race alone will not impact student achievement.

In fact in a recent study Harvard professor Tom Kane writes the single most effective intervention, an intervention that far exceeds the impact of a novice versus an experienced teacher are textbooks aligned to curriculum and standards.  (Watch a video of a symposium hosted by David Steiner here and listen to my snarky question at about the 1:08 mark).

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One response to “Race: Does the Race of a Teacher Impact Student Performance? Does the Race of a School Leader Impact Teacher Effectiveness?

  1. It shouldn’t, but we all know that in certain circumstances it does. There are two aspects to this dilemma. The first and most popular one, is that white teachers have a low expectation of achievement abilities for learners
    who are black or latino. The second aspect is that of reverse racism. Many young black and latino children come to school with a belief that their white teachers are crackers, who don’t care for them at all.. Between these two dynamics,,is the black mom or latino mom who would prefer a white teacher to a black or latino one, for the simple reason that they believe the white teacher has been better prepped in the college that they attended. Additionally, I have had black mothers say to me that they want their child to have a white teacher, because that teacher would give their child a much needed exposure to white culture. They also didn’t want their children subjected to certain behavioral modifications that at best would be placed high up on the corporal punishment verbotten list,were they to misbehave in the presence of a black teacher. Back in the day, many African American students spent time in southern schools, and to this day, in those,
    and in those states paddllng and beatings are still going on as a behavioral modification tools. Nothing like getting a switch off the peach tree and taking it to the shed! I first heard that phrase from my assigned buddy in 1965. It was on open school nite, when an african american mother was listening to my account of her son’s indiscretions. She was alarmed to hear my report, and declared that she had punished the child in all kinds of ways.IE -taking away his TV use, his comic books, his leisure outside time etc. My buddy simply declared that it was time to get a switch off the tree and take him to the basement. I never forgot it, and when I became a White DEan, I vowed to never resort to such tactics, and was driven to show that behavioral modification could be achieved thru sound scientiifc methodology. And I was right..

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