Will the North Star State lead the way on racial representation in the classroom?

Many educators, students and activists believe that students of color may benefit from having teachers who share their race/ethnicity because these individuals can act as role models or mentors and provide a cultural bridge to help students access classroom material. Yet across the nation, we see significant diversity gaps between teachers and students. In a new study that will appear in the April issue of Economics of Education Review, we report on the achievement impacts of this diversity mismatch, examining whether teacher assignment influences student academic outcomes. Here, we highlight the key results from that research.

First, some background on the diversity-gap in the North Star State. Ninety-five percent of Minnesota's public elementary and secondary school teachers are white, compared to just 73 percent students, a figure that has been declining over the past decade. This means that, despite their growing presence in Minnesota schools, students of color are significantly less likely than their white counterparts to encounter a teacher who looks like them. Minnesota's student-teacher diversity gap is not going unnoticed by parents and activists. "We want to see a full representation that allows students to see that the classroom is more welcoming and that those who stand in front of the classroom look like them," said Abdullah Kiatamba of African Immigrant Services last year while visiting the Osseo Public School District office with a group of parents.

Research shows that teachers may hold racially biased views of student ability, assessing students of the same race more favorably. Racial mismatch between teachers and students also influences teacher assessments of a variety of subjective factors—whether teachers believe a student is likely to attend college, whether they believe the student has good interpersonal relationships, whether they speak to the student outside of class and whether or not they believe the student is a hard worker.

For our research, we used a longitudinal dataset of almost three million public school students over a seven-year period in Florida, comparing students’ scores on state tests in years when they had a teacher who shared their race or ethnicity to school years when they did not. Because of the rich dataset, we were able to account for many other factors that might explain differences in student achievement—such as family income, English language proficiency, gender, teacher quality and students’ previous test scores.

Our findings show:

  • Black, white and Asian students benefit from being assigned to a teacher that looks like them. Their test scores go up in years when their teacher shares their ethnicity, compared to years when their teacher has a different ethnicity.
  • Effects are generally largest for elementary-aged students and students who are lower-performing.
  • Elementary-aged black students seem to particularly benefit from demographically similar teachers.

Many Minnesota school districts are already working hard to recruit and retain more teachers of color. Our research demonstrates that this is important and timely work. As Minnesota's students grow increasingly diverse, they would benefit from better representation among their teachers.


Anna Egalite is a postdoctoral fellow in the Program on Education Policy and Governance in the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter: @annaegalite

Brian Kisida is a senior research associate in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Follow him on Twitter: @briankisida

The MinnCAN blog allows Minnesota teachers, administrators, parents and advocates to share their thoughts on key education issues. Blogging fellows' and guest bloggers' views and opinions are solely their own.


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