One way education systems have tried to raise the performance of Black and Brown children is by matching students with teachers of the same race and ethnicity. The conventional wisdom is that such practices are strongly supported by research, but a recent study published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly offers a contrarian view.
Two Penn State researchers used data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten (ECLS-K) to look at the national cohort of students who entered kindergarten during the 2010–11 school year, and to follow them through fifth grade. They included details from three tests of academic achievement, five teacher ratings of classroom behavior, and two independently assessed executive functioning tasks. The sample of 18,170 children is large and racially, ethnically, and economically diverse. The outcomes of interest were reading, science, and mathematics achievement; problem behaviors; self-control; interpersonal skills; approaches to learning; cognitive flexibility; and working memory. They also examined whether students were placed in gifted or special education classes.
Approximately 63 percent of students had a teacher of the same race or ethnicity during any elementary grade. Among White students, it was 92 percent, versus 45 percent for their Black and Hispanic peers. White students were especially likely to experience matching throughout most or all of elementary school—55 percent of them for five or six grades—due to the prevalence of White teachers leading elementary classrooms. The contrasting figure for Black students was only 3 percent, and 10 percent for Hispanic students.
For select groups, there were some positive impacts. For Black students, matching resulted in significantly fewer internalizing problem behaviors, such as anxiety, loneliness, and low self-esteem. And for Black girls, it also led to fewer externalizing problem behaviors, such as arguing and fighting with others, acting impulsively, and expressing anger. For students of any race or ethnicity who had previously displayed low levels of academic, behavioral, or executive functioning, racial and ethnic matching resulted in fewer externalizing and internalizing problem behaviors but, unfortunately, lower academic achievement. There was also a small but statistically significant negative effect on science achievement.
When looking at the entire sample, however, the impacts disappear: Student-teacher racial or ethnic matching was not associated with significant effects in reading or mathematics achievement, externalizing or internalizing problem behaviors, self-control, interpersonal skills, approaches to learning, cognitive flexibility, working memory, or gifted education service receipt. Students were less likely to receive special education services when they were taught by a teacher of the same race or ethnicity, but the level of significance is difficult to determine due to the small sample size of recipients.
The researchers properly note that their study focused only on elementary grades and might miss benefits of matching that emerge in middle and high school (or perhaps later in life), and they suggest further analysis along these lines.
SOURCE: Paul L. Morgan and Eric Hengyu Hu, “Fixed effect estimates of student-teacher racial or ethnic matching in U.S. elementary schools,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly (December 2022).