As a white teacher of students of color, I held high expectations for all my students. I believed in their infinite potential, and cheered them on in their paths toward college and rewarding careers.
At least, I think I did.
But a 2015 study done by researchers at American University and John Hopkins University found that white teachers do not hold as high of expectations for their students of color. The researchers found that, “when a black student is evaluated by one black teacher and by one non-black teacher, the non-black teacher is about 30 percent less likely to expect that the student will complete a four-year college degree than the black teacher.”
This disparity in expectations is troubling because teachers’ expectations matter a great deal. Another research study found that tenth grade students whose teachers held high expectations were three times more likely to graduate from college than their peers whose teachers held lower expectations. And it’s not that teachers are simply good at predicting their students’ future success.
Indeed, other studies indicate that teachers’ expectations—even when based on deliberately false information about their students’ abilities—lead to subtle biases favoring students for whom teachers hold high expectations. These subtle biases include more time for these students to answer questions, more feedback on assignments, and more positive encouragement.This in turn, leads to different outcomes for students.
In addition to holding higher expectations for students of color, teachers of color may serve as role models, or guides, helping these students navigate a racist system. As Perry, Steele, and Hilliard argue in Young Gifted and Black, “there are extra social, emotional, cognitive, and political competencies required of African-American youth precisely because they are African-American.” Minority teachers can help minority students thrive in a system that often plays by unfair or unpredictable rules.
Low-performing students in particular, seem to benefit from having a teacher of the same race or ethnicity. This is true throughout a student’s education. Researchers at the National Bureau for Economics Research studied how having minority instructors impacted minority students at the community college level. They found substantial positive impacts: minority students taught by minority instructors achieved better grades and were more likely to earn degrees than minority students who did not have minority instructors.
So if teachers of color hold higher expectations for their students of color, and can help these students succeed and navigate the system, it seems clear we need more teachers of color. But, while more than 50% of children under 5 are students of color, 80% of teachers are white. In fact, from 2002 to 2012, the number of black teachers declined across the United States. A Shanker Institute study found that during that 10-year period, here in Los Angeles we lost a third of our black teachers.
Researchers offer many theories for why the nation’s teachers remain mostly white. For starters, many teachers of color never had teachers of color themselves, and thus are less inclined to enter the profession. What’s more, the debt many students of color carry with them due to being the first in their families to attend college, prohibits them from considering a low-paying career like teaching.
While each of these factors may be keeping people of color from entering the profession, the Shanker Institute study suggests that the real reason for the decline in the percentage of minority teachers may be due more to retention than to recruitment. Minority teachers are leaving teaching at much higher rates than white teachers due to a “lack of collective voice in educational decisions and a lack of professional autonomy in the classroom.”
A teacher of color in a school staffed primarily by white teachers may feel that certain curriculum is irrelevant for students of color or that the way the school handles discipline is not effective for students of color. That teacher may voice his opinions. But, if that teacher feels his opinions are not valued, he may feel helpless, and eventually decide to leave the profession altogether. This is so common, in fact, that Boston Teacher Residency has created a Male Educators of Color Network designed to support male teachers of color who feel marginalized in their school communities.
While this kind of program is a boon to those teachers in need of community, teachers of color should not have to teach in an environment where they feel their opinions are discounted—especially when those opinions concern students of color.
The research is clear that it is a great benefit to students of color to have teachers of color. While much research concerns redoubling our efforts to recruit teachers of color, it is imperative that we also do more to encourage schools where teachers of color can serve as leaders in school decision-making and have autonomy over their classroom curriculum and decisions. If we do this, we may have a chance at reversing the dangerous trend of teachers of color leaving the profession. And if we don’t, our students will continue being held back by their teachers’ low expectations.