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The Impact of a Diverse Educator Workforce

January 4, 2018

Katie Brohawn

Just this morning, an analysis by Chalkbeat highlighted the gap in diversity between students and teachers in New York City – with 83% of students in the city identifying as Asian, black or Latino compared to only 39% of their teachers. Here at ExpandED Schools we’ve been intrigued by recent research highlighting the symbolic and tangible benefits of a diverse teaching force, with positive associations found between same-race teachers and student outcomes. Most recently, a study by Drs. Anna Egalite of North Carolina State University and Brian Kisida of the University of Missouri (in press, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis documented the positive impact of demographic matches between middle school students and their teachers on students’ perceptions of their teachers, school engagement and college aspirations. Further, two years earlier they highlighted the academic benefits of students and teachers sharing the same race/ethnicity. These findings, along with others, have prompted us to explore this concept more within our own schools. Preliminary findings from schools in our network support the positive impact of a diverse educator force (results forthcoming). As we prepare to explore these findings more, we reached out to Dr. Egalite to learn more about her research and its implications for the field of expanded learning time.

Your most recent research finds that the effects of gender matches are largely consistent across elementary and middle school, while the most consistent effects from race matches occur specifically in middle school. Do you have any hypotheses why this might be?

When we were working on this study, we thought a lot about how children perceive their social identities and how that self-concept changes and becomes meaningful in different ways as they get older. For instance, there might be age-related differences in how children think about being a boy or about being African American. We were conscious that older children are more likely to be exposed to messages about gender and racial stereotypes as they watch more mature television shows, read more advanced books, and engage with social media. Further, in terms of cognitive development and overall maturity, older students may particularly benefit from encountering a teacher who looks like them as this person might be able to help them navigate questions about what these social categories mean, even indirectly.

To learn more about the age-related effects of teacher assignment, we examined outcomes by gender alone and by race alone. When we focus on gender mismatches, we see a consistent pattern of results for all ages examined. Students in both elementary and middle school report lower levels of feeling cared for, feeling academically challenged, feeling captivated by their school work, and feeling happy in class when their teacher is of a different gender. Age doesn’t seem to play much of a role in this regard, perhaps because gender is so firmly embedded into children’s self-concept from an early age.

When we examine racial mismatches, we are much more likely to observe a relationship for older children than for elementary-aged children. Middle school students who experience a racial mismatch with their teacher are less likely than their race-matched peers to say their teacher seems to know if something is bothering them and that their teacher really tries to understanding how students feel about things, that this class is a happy place for them to be, that they push themselves hard to completely understand lessons in this class, and that because of their teacher they think more about going to college. It’s possible this finding suggests that students’ self-concept becomes more nuanced as they mature and learn to incorporate, accept, and celebrate all aspects of their social identity, making them more open to the benefits of a racially-similar role-model.

Do you think the findings from your research extend to after-school and expanded learning?

This study takes advantage of student survey questions designed to capture under-examined outcomes such as how a student feels about the way their teacher treats them when they need help, whether or not they feel encouraged to do their best, and if the teacher seems to know if something is bothering them. It’s easy to see how other adults in a child’s life could also have a meaningful impact on these types of outcomes, such as leaders of after-school programs, tutors, and community partners working to deliver expanded learning opportunities. Other community members such as scout or girl guide leaders, volunteers with Big Brothers Big Sisters, sports coaches, choir directors, faith leaders, and other mentors or role models that children come in contact with for extended periods of time also have the potential to influence these types of outcomes. If that turns out to be the case, it points to the benefits of having diverse role models in all kinds of organizations and clubs.

What might the findings from your research suggest for skills that all educators (in school and after-school) need to develop?

We hope that the findings from this research can be used to identify useful skills, to build helpful resources, and to enrich professional learning opportunities for any educator—current or aspiring—who hopes to build meaningful and impactful relationships with all students.

In terms of specific skills, some of the largest results we report are responses by gender- and race-matched middle school students to the statements “My teacher really tries to understand how students feel about things” and “My teacher in this class makes me feel that s/he really cares about me.” Differential responses to these statements by matched and unmatched students suggest that much more work could be done to help teachers communicate a sense of caring in a manner to which students from many different cultural backgrounds can relate.

What policies would you like to see as a result of your work?

Given the dramatic underrepresentation of teachers of color among the current public K-12 workforce, we recommend states take action to support the diversification of the profession. Programs such as the Minority Teachers of Illinois Scholarship Program and the Florida Fund for Minority Teachers provide financial assistance for college students interested in a teaching career. When funding is not available to support such efforts, it’s still possible to generate interest in a teaching career among high school students of color through outreach programs such as North Carolina State University’s Brothers United in Leadership Development Academy.

We work with a range of schools with respect to demographics. Some are quite mixed, while some are predominantly one race/ethnicity (i.e. all black, all Hispanic). Do the effects you’ve found vary by degree of diversity of students in the classroom or school or other teachers in the school?

We are interested in this question too but we haven’t been able to study it yet, which is why I’ve referenced it in my answer below about future research!

What would you like to know next? What kind of research do you think the Expanded Learning field should undertake?

Something we haven’t been able to examine yet is whether the effects we’ve observed vary based on overall school diversity. This can refer to the racial makeup of the student body across the entire school as well as the racial makeup of the faculty and staff.

Another important follow-up study we would love to conduct is to rigorously examine the impact of an educator training module designed to help teachers and other school staff better connect with culturally diverse groups of students. Ideally, we would recruit a set of schools to participate in the training, then randomly assign half of the schools to receive the training while the other half serves as the comparison group. Student responses on the survey instrument could then be compared across the two groups to determine if the student-teacher match effect persists even after the teacher training or if the cultural competency training was so successful that it eradicated any differences in student responses.