From the Field

Teachers, Students, Race and Behavior

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 Recent research has documented that students of color are more likely to graduate from high school and attend a four-year college if they have at least one same-race teacher during elementary school. UC Santa Barbara Professor Michael Gottfried and colleagues Adam Wright and Vi-Nhuan Le looked at a different aspect of school performance—behavior—and found similar results.

What have you found in terms of behavior among minority students with teachers of the same race.

We found that the gap in teacher-reported externalizing behavior—or acting out—between White students and students of color (Latino and African-American students) shrunk to nearly zero by the end of kindergarten when students of color were paired with teachers who were of the same race/ethnicity.

Why did you choose to look at kindergartners?

Because previous studies have shown that teachers’ assessments of children during kindergarten may influence later behavior and outcomes. We thought it was important to determine whether there is evidence of cultural incongruities early on in a student’s educational career that can affect teachers’ expectations and assessments of students and lead to policies that foster and support environments that set all children on a trajectory of school success.

Were their differences between African-American and Latino kindergartners in how they interacted with same-race teachers?

Our empirical analysis found that both African-American and Latino students benefit from having a same-race teacher in behavioral assessments. The improvement for African-American students was nearly double that for Latino students.

For the Latino children, was there a different dynamic among those learning English and those who already speak the language?

Yes, the improvement in behavior for Latino students matched with a same-race teacher was completely driven by improvements for English Language Learners (ELLs). We found no effect of having a same-race teacher on externalizing behaviors for non-ELL students. We also found no effect among Latino ELL students who were paired with Spanish-speaking, non-Latino teachers, suggesting that it was a shared cultural background as opposed to a shared language that was accounting for our results.

What implications does your research have for school discipline, given that African-American and Latino students are suspended at much higher rates than White students?

Whether externalizing behaviors are seen as disruptive or not depends at least in part on how teachers perceive students’ behaviors, and this study suggests that the racial match between teachers and students matters in teachers’ interpretations. One reason we focus on these behaviors in this study is because this measure, even in kindergarten, is predictive of school suspensions. The school suspension gap between students of color and White students may therefore be due in part to the fact that teachers of color are largely underrepresented in K-12 schools.

I’ve read that only 18 percent of U.S. teachers are racial or ethnic minorities, compared to about 40 percent of the students. If we have only a limited supply of minority teachers, is it more important that they interact with students in the early grades?

Yes, all else being equal. It’s also important to ensure that our students get the best teachers (in terms of qualifications and ability to improve student achievement and social outcomes) in the earlier grades. Therefore, being able to attract and retain high quality minority teachers in elementary schools has the potential to be extremely powerful.

Since most of our teachers are White, what lessons should they take from this study? Should school districts offer more training in cultural awareness?

The main lesson from our study is that the racial match between teachers and students affects how teachers assess student behavior. This does not necessarily imply prejudice or favoritism on anyone’s part, but perhaps that differences in cultural backgrounds lead to different perceptions of behavior. Teacher training on culture-specific behavior management strategies, as well as having an appropriate racial balance of evaluators in determining what actions warrant suspension, may go a long way in reducing the racial gaps in school suspension. It also speaks to a broader effort to recruit more teachers of color to the profession, especially as the population of students of color continues to grow.