A recent study of the experiences of North Carolina students explores this issue. The answer seems to be yes, especially for elementary school students taught by black teachers. In general, black teachers rely less on exclusionary discipline than white teachers, regardless of the race of their student.
Researchers Constance Lindsey and Cassandra Hart examined the disciplinary records of more than two million 1st-12th grade students over a six-year period (2007-2013). The study compared disciplinary outcomes for students in the years they had a same-race teacher to the years in which they did not. This research is unique in its design. While researchers and the public have access to data that details the number of disciplinary actions meted out, rarely does data allow one to track the characteristics of specific students and their teachers.
Here is what they found.
For black elementary-aged students, having a black teacher means a lower chance of receiving detentions, suspensions, or expulsions. However, this pattern may not hold true at the high school level.
Race and gender intersect in interesting ways in elementary schools. When a black male student has a black female teacher, his chances of being removed from school for a disciplinary infraction drop by 15 percent. When black male students are paired with black male educators, that reduction rose to 18 percent. Black female students are removed from school 10 percent less often when they are paired with black educators.
The authors do not observe any disciplinary advantages associated with matching white students to white teachers. White elementary-aged students face exclusionary forms of discipline less often when taught by a black educator. It is black female educators, not white educators, who hand out the lowest rates of exclusionary discipline to white students.
These findings are compelling. Reductions in the use of exclusionary school discipline can have a positive impact on educational student outcomes. Students who are suspended, even once, have a substantially higher chance of dropping out of school, developing truancy problems, and coming in contact with the juvenile justice system.
The benefits go beyond reduced discipline. Lindsey and Hart find that black students who were taught by black teachers achieve at higher levels academically. The reading scores of elementary students rose when they were taught by black teachers.
The study did not explain why these reductions in disciplinary rates occur when students are taught by black teachers. The authors speculate that the lower discipline rates might be due to black teachers adopting more effective classroom management practices or an increased level of respect felt by students towards teachers who look like them. Other studies indicate that black and white teachers view black student behavior differently.
Increasing the number of black teachers may not be such a simple matter. America’s teaching ranks are not representative of its student population. For example, in North Carolina, the population of black and Latino students rose by four percent between 2001 and 2013, while the percentage of black and Latino teachers dropped by one percent.
It is not clear the extent to which the study is generalizable, as the racial breakdown of North Carolina students in public schools does not reflect that of the nation. The percentage of black students in North Carolina public schools (26 percent) is considerably higher than in the nation (approximately 16 percent).
Yet the evidence seems to speak for itself. Employing more black teachers would be in the best interest of all children.
Ashley Arnold is a graduate student at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and a policy intern at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
*The authors explain why the study looked at only black and white students. “Students of other racial and ethnic groups had insufficient exposure to same-race teachers for the purposes of our study. For example, while Latino students account for 16 percent of observations in the data, the state has too few Latino teachers to estimate precise race-match effects for this group.”