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Many studies have found a positive impact on black students from having black teachers in elementary and secondary schools. A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that the positive impact may extend far beyond school, to whether black students enroll in college.

The study was primarily based in Tennessee, taking advantage of an experiment in which cohorts of students were randomly placed in different types of classrooms with different student-teacher ratios. The experiment was not designed to focus on black student achievement but provided researchers with a rare sample of students randomly selected to different classes, allowing for comparisons based on a variety of factors. The researchers also replicated their findings in North Carolina, where the study found that having a single black teacher at a young age can decrease the black dropout rate by about one-third.

The key finding in the working paper: "black students randomly assigned to a black teacher in grades K-3 are 5 percentage points (7 percent) more likely to graduate from high school and 4 percentage points (13 percent) more likely to enroll in college than their peers in the same school who are not assigned a black teacher."

The researchers describe their findings as "arguably causal" and say that they are "robust" in a series of comparisons they made. (The Tennessee program has very few Latino participants, so the researchers were unable to measure whether the impact was the same there, although they write that this is an important research question to study.)

Given the way many colleges struggle to recruit black students, the findings could point to a different approach to, over the long term, increasing black college enrollment, by trying to educate more black students to be teachers. At the same time, the authors note that the challenge for American educators isn't just recruiting more black people into education, but thinking about all of the consequences of such a move.

"Findings from this research provide some reason to be optimistic as they provide a path to reducing stubbornly persistent racial attainment gaps," the authors write. "However, they also raise a number of questions, some of which could be addressed in future research, surrounding efforts to diversify the teaching work force. For example, while our study provides strong support for the idea that diversifying the teaching work force could ceteris paribus have a strong and positive effect on historically disadvantaged students, a pipeline that could achieve massive growth in the number of black teachers is nonexistent. Hiring practices that attempt to diversify while maintaining high teacher quality would thus necessitate, for example, re-allocating college educated blacks from other lucrative fields to teaching, a relatively low-paid occupation. Doing so might lead to unintended consequences, such as exacerbating existing racial wage gaps, at least in the short run. To put this issue into perspective, consider the following back-of-the-envelope calculation. Of the roughly 3.8 million K-12 teachers in the U.S., approximately 256,000, or 6.7 percent, are black. Comparing this fraction to the 15.4 percent of K-12 students who are black suggests that doubling the number of black teachers would begin to get us close to aligning the work force with the student body they are supposed to teach."

The researchers add, "Doing so would necessitate steering 256,000 additional black college graduates from other occupations into teaching. Using the 2018 March Current Population Survey (CPS), and focusing on females with a bachelor’s or master’s degree, the group that comprises most teachers, we find that median earnings for blacks who are not teachers is roughly $49,000 while median earnings for blacks who are teachers is $45,000. Supposing non-teachers who became teachers were previously earning the median non-teacher income and now earn the median teacher income, efforts to diversify the teaching work force imply a $4,000 pay cut for 256,000 black workers, thus reducing total income for blacks by more than one billion dollars."

The authors of the study are Seth Gershenson of American University; Cassandra M. D. Hart of the University of California, Davis; Joshua Hyman of the University of Connecticut; Constance Lindsay of the Urban Institute; and Nicholas W. Papageorge of Johns Hopkins University.

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