Why do black students do worse in school when they are taught by white educators? The answer might be because these teachers are more likely to suspend them, and under these teachers, black students are more likely to miss class.
A recent study from researchers at American University looked at the attendance and suspension rates of North Carolina primary school students between 2006-2010 and analyzed how these rates changed based on the race of a student's teacher from year to year.
The study explored some of the potential reasons why students tend to have higher test scores when they are taught by teachers of the same race. Researchers found that students are less likely to be chronically absent or suspended when they have a demographically similar classroom teacher. This was especially true for black boys, who saw the highest suspension rates.
"A black male student who has a white teacher is more than one percentage point more likely to be suspended a year," said American University professor Seth Gershenson. Even though that might sound like a small difference, it translates to "almost a twenty percent increase in the likelihood of being suspended during the year. Especially in primary school, even being suspended once is a really big disruption to the learning environment."
Overall, attendance rates were lower and suspension rates were higher among black and Hispanic students compared to white and Asian students, the study found.
Gershenson offered possible explanations for why teacher demographics could alter a student's attendance rates -- especially given that parents play a role in whether a child stays home.
"I think one of the important mechanisms through which teachers effect student attendance, especially at the primary school level, is by communicating directly with parents," said Gershenson. "Communicating their expectations for attendance, and also proactively reaching out -- or maybe retroactively reaching out -- when there is a looming attendance problem."
With a "demographically similar teacher," he said, the parent might be more likely to "take their advice to heart."
"And also it could be that those teachers are perceived as being genuinely concerned about the student," he said. "Even though parents play a big role, the kids themselves can indirectly influence attendance by putting up a fight about going to school."
The study bolsters the idea that schools need to diversify their teaching force. A vast majority of teachers are white women. Still, Gershenson notes, diversity can't be the only solution. "Just because of raw numbers, it would be pretty difficult to get a representative teaching force," he said.
He recommends team teaching to make sure students get more exposure to nonwhite educators, as even if "there's only a handful of nonwhite teachers in the school, students can get exposure to all the teachers in the school, not just their self-contained classroom teacher."
He also recommended that teachers receive more training on unconscious bias in keep them from suspending different groups of students more than others.
"I don't think teachers are intentionally treating different students differently. A lot of this is unconscious," he said.