A study shows the difference just one black teacher can make to the lives of poor black students

What are the odds?
What are the odds?
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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Black students from low-income families—and particularly black boys—post some of the worst dropout rates in America. Yet combating that problem could be as simple as reshuffling classroom teaching assignments.

According to a new working paper published by the Institute of Labor Economics this week, having a single black teacher in elementary school dramatically reduces a black student’s probability of later dropping out of high school. Researchers looked at 100,000 young black students entering North Carolina public schools between 2001 and 2005, matching their high school performance with whether or not they had at least one black teacher between the ages of 8-11—in third, fourth, or fifth grade. They followed up with a similar examination of data on black students in Tennessee in the 1980s.

What they found was striking: being taught by a single black teacher in elementary school seems to decrease black students’ chance of dropping out by 29%. That number climbs to 39% for black boys in low-income brackets.

Nicholas Papageorge, a Johns Hopkins assistant professor who co-authored the study, tells Quartz the reasons for that huge jump in success are still murky. It could be what’s known in social psychology as the “race match effect”: Students are encouraged to work harder when they see someone like themselves in positions of prestige or authority.

Or, it could be the teachers themselves. “Maybe they have higher expectations for black students, and shuffle more resources towards kids for whom they have those expectations,” Papageorge suggests.

Further research is certainly required. But the study adds to previous investigations noting there are benefits to students being paired with teachers of the same race; it’s also the first of its kind to show noticeable effects of having just one teacher of the same race. (Interestingly, having two or more black teachers didn’t further move the dropout rate.)

“Persistently economically disadvantaged black boys are a particularly difficult group, in attainment gaps,” says Papageorge. “When gaps are persistent, policymakers tend to throw their hands up and say, ‘We’re not going to move the dial on this group.’ But this finding—it’s encouraging to me because it shows that yes, we can move the dial.”

He added: “We could implement policy starting tomorrow.”