The Importance of Diverse Teachers

This article was written by David Figlio for We do not own any content in this article. Click here to read the original article.


In a recent study, Lindsay, Blom, and Tilsley present an impressive analysis of the disparities between the racial composition of American children and the racial composition of the American teaching force.[1] Using data from the American Community Survey, they show that in 2015 just over half of American children aged 5 to 17 were white, but nearly 80 percent of young teachers (whom they define as individuals aged 25 to 34, with a bachelor’s degree, and teaching at the prekindergarten through high school level) were white. Meanwhile, while black students comprise around 13 percent of all school-aged children, black teachers represent only around 8 percent of all young teachers, and while Hispanic students comprise around 24 percent of all school-aged children, Hispanic teachers represent only around 9 percent of all young teachers. Asian teachers are slightly underrepresented relative to the percentage of Asian students in the population.


Lindsay, Blom, and Tilsley then seek to understand where in the pipeline for teachers do these gaps emerge. They begin by looking at the likelihood that young people from different racial and ethnic groups would be in a position to potentially become teachers. While 95 percent of Asian young adults (those aged 25 to 34) in 2015 graduated from high school and 94 percent of white young adults graduated from high school, smaller fractions of black (89 percent) and Hispanic (76 percent) young adults had high school diplomas. Racial and ethnic gaps in college degree attainment were even more stark: 65 percent of Asian young adults held bachelor’s degrees and 40 percent of white young adults held bachelor’s degrees, but only 21 percent of black young adults and 16 percent of Hispanic young adults held bachelor’s degrees. Since a bachelor’s degree is almost invariantly required for teaching, these bachelor’s degree completion gaps make it much harder to achieve a teaching force whose diversity mirrors that of the student population.

How much do racial and ethnic gaps in college completion explain diversity gaps in the teaching force? While white college graduates become teachers at relatively higher rates than black and Hispanic college graduates, the three rates of teaching conditional on being college graduates are all in the same general ballpark: 10.8 percent of white young adults with bachelor’s degrees were teachers in 2015, compared with 8.6 percent of young black college graduates and 9.4 percent of young Hispanic college graduates. Asian young college graduates become teachers at dramatically lower rates: Only 3.3 of Asian young adults with bachelor’s degrees were teachers. Putting the pieces together, 4.4 percent of white young adults in 2015 were teachers, as compared with 1.8 percent of black young adults, 1.5 percent of Hispanic young adults, and 2.1 percent of Asian young adults.

Lindsay, Blom, and Tilsley seek to unpack the ways in which college graduates of different demographic groups become teachers. While it is beyond the scope of their research to determine the causal consequences of providing alternative routes for college graduates to become teachers, they provide some evidence indicating that there might be even larger demographic gaps in the teaching force were it the case that only those with undergraduate teaching degrees could become teachers.[2] 5.8 percent of young white college graduates (53 percent of all young white teachers) had undergraduate teaching degrees, in contrast with 3.3 percent of young black college graduates (38 percent of all young black teachers), 4.0 percent of young Hispanic college graduates (43 percent of all young Hispanic teachers), and 0.8 percent of young Asian college graduates (24 percent of all young Asian teachers). Young non-white teachers therefore disproportionately entered teaching through means other than receiving an undergraduate teaching degree. That said, it’s clear from their analysis that the most important driver of the mismatch between the racial and ethnic distribution of students and the racial and ethnic distribution of teachers involves racial and ethnic differences in college completion. Increasing the fraction of non-white young adults who earn bachelor’s degrees would increase the number of potential non-white teachers, and would likely reduce the racial and ethnic mismatch between students and teachers.


Why should we care whether the teaching force reflects the demographics of the student body? A growing body of literature suggests that outcomes such as test scores, attendance, and suspension rates are affected by the demographic match between teachers and students.[3]

Minority students often perform better on standardized tests, have improved attendance, and are suspended less frequently (which may suggest either different degrees of behavior or different treatment, or both) when they have at least one same-race teacher.

All of these outcomes, however, are measured in the short run, and might not be sustained over time. Until recently, there existed no studies of the effects of exposure to same-race teachers on longer-run outcomes. A recent paper[4], however, provides important new evidence on precisely this question. Gershenson, Hart, Lindsay, and Papageorge demonstrate that if a black male student has at least one black teacher in the third, fourth, or fifth grade, he is significantly less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to aspire to attend a four-year college (as proxied by taking a college entrance exam). They find that these effects are especially pronounced for economically disadvantaged black male students. For instance, they find that a disadvantaged black male’s exposure to at least one black teacher in elementary school reduces his probability of dropping out of high school by nearly 40 percent. This estimated effect is not just statistically significant, but also highly educationally relevant.

One thing that makes this new study so compelling is that the authors show that the results are present in multiple settings, using multiple research designs. In one part of the study, Gershenson, Hart, Lindsay, and Papageorge make use of administrative data in North Carolina, and study what happens when the demographic composition of teachers in elementary schools varies from cohort to cohort. In another part of the study, they investigate the effects of being randomly assigned to a same-race teacher as part of Tennessee’s Project STAR class size experiment.[5]

Why might exposure to same-race teachers make a difference? Having same-race role models could inspire minority students, and may affect teacher expectations as well. For instance, there exists some evidence that black teachers expect more from black students than white teachers do.[6] And same-race teachers may be more able to link cultural contexts to learning in ways that could benefit racial and ethnic minority students. While the jury’s still out regarding the mechanisms at play here, the emerging evidence suggests that a diverse teaching force has the promising potential to help minority students attain greater educational success.


Research indicates that minority students do better contemporaneously in school – and likely in the long run as well – when they are exposed to teachers of their same race or ethnicity. As a consequence, the underrepresentation of minority teachers relative to the proportion of minority school-aged students could be having the effect of limiting minority students’ educational success. This has large potential effects for students and taxpayers alike: In addition to the strong economic and social benefits accruing to the students themselves when they graduate from high school, Levin and Rouse argue that the net benefit to taxpayers associated with each new high school graduate is well over $100,000.[7]

A major driver of this underrepresentation appears to be the striking differences in the likelihood that young adults from different demographic groups have attained a bachelor’s degree, generally a prerequisite to teach. Of course, this is a chicken-and-egg problem, given that educational attainment appears to be affected by the likelihood of having at least one same-race teacher, and the likelihood of having at least one same-race teacher appears to be affected by the educational attainment of same-race adults. But it indicates that a move to increase minority college attendance and completion could be the key to greater minority representation in the teaching force.


Research shows that teachers of color help close achievement gaps for students of color and are highly rated by students of all races—a fact that is all the more relevant in light of the release this month of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). 

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What is the correlation between diversity gaps in teaching and racial/ ethnic gaps in college completion? 

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What are some of the educational benefits of having same race teachers?

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Why does exposure to same race teachers and/ or diverse teachers make a difference in students' learning experiences?

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