Black students are routinely punished more harshly in school than white counterparts. However, new research shows there may be a relatively simple fix for this disparity: more black teachers.
For years, data from the U.S. Department of Education has shown that black students disproportionately face exclusionary punishments, like suspensions and expulsions. But new research published Tuesday in the quarterly journal Education Next finds that black students are less likely to receive detentions, suspensions or expulsions when they are taught by educators who are also black.
Researchers from American University and University of California, Davis, looked at teacher demographic and student discipline data for North Carolina elementary school students from 2008 to 2013. The data included certain identifiers that allowed researchers to match a student’s discipline records with the race of their classroom teachers. The data allowed researchers to compare the discipline records of individual students as they progressed throughout elementary school.
Previous studies used aggregate data. But the new study used precise information that allowed researchers to “really match students one-to-one with a teacher,” said co-author Constance Lindsay.
Overall, researchers found that students were less likely to face exclusionary discipline when taught by teachers who look like them.
“This effect is driven almost entirely by black students, especially black boys, who are markedly less likely to be subjected to exclusionary discipline when taught by black teachers,” says the study. “There is little evidence of any benefit for white students of being matched with white teachers.”
Researchers found that 16 percent of black boys in the study were subjected to exclusionary discipline when they had white women as teachers. However, when black boys were taught by black women, this number dropped to 14 percent. This number fell further when black boys were taught by black men.
Black girls were also less likely to get sent to detention, suspended or expelled when they were taught by black women, the study found.
Teacher race did not have a significant impact on punishment for white children, researchers said.
“What’s interesting there, is even though the results are pretty small, they’re consistent. We cut the data a few different ways and it’s consistent with different types of school, whether suburban or urban,” said Lindsay.
The stakes for these students are high. Previous research shows that exclusionary discipline practices help push students into the school-to-prison pipeline, which hurts children of color more than whites.
Lindsay could only speculate why black students were less frequently subjected to exclusionary discipline when they have black teachers.
“It could be something that black teachers do that’s just different when it comes to classroom control,” Lindsay said. “Maybe in different contexts, behavior is treated differently. Maybe black students act differently with black teachers. And it could be implicit bias white teachers have.”
The finding supports more teacher diversity, according to Lindsay. Although policymakers and education organizations have worked to increase the recruitment of teachers of color in recent years, white teachers still remain the substantial majority, even though a majority of America’s students are now minorities.
Teachers of color tend to have higher turnover rates than white teachers. These teachers often work in the hardest-to-staff schools and feel like they are not given proper autonomy, according to a recent brief from the Learning Policy Institute.
University of Pennsylvania professor Richard Ingersoll said in September that improving working conditions to retain minority teachers shouldn’t be too difficult, in theory.
“Raising salaries is very expensive; fixing someone’s working conditions is less so,” said Ingersoll. “We could go a long way toward achieving parity in the numbers of minority teachers and students in this country.”
Rebecca Klein covers the challenges faced in school discipline, school segregation and the achievement gap in K-12 education. In particular, she is drilling down into the programs and innovations that are trying to solve these problems. Tips? Email: Rebecca.Klein@huffingtonpost.