The data evaluated about 100,000 black students in North Carolina public schools who began the third grade between 2001 and 2005.
Approximately 13 percent of low-income black students eventually dropped out of high school, while about 50 percent graduated with no plans to pursue college.
Assign one of those students to a single black teacher’s class in the third, fourth or fifth grades, though, and they were 29 percent less likely to drop out of high school. And they were 18 percent more likely to consider college after graduating with a high school degree.
The student-teacher connection was even more important for persistently low-income black boys. These students — who received free or reduced-price lunches throughout elementary school — were 39 percent less likely to drop out and 29 percent more likely to say they would pursue college than similar students without black elementary school teachers.
Nicholas Papageorge, co-author of the report and assistant professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University, said his team’s findings build off of existing research studies which correlate same-race teachers to improved end-of-year test scores for black students.
“We were wondering — do these rates and matching factor extend to more than just test scores?” Papageorge said.
Papageorge said he was most surprised by the pronounced effect that the exposure had on persistently poor black boys.
“That’s a group for whom educational attainment gaps are really, really persistent,” he said of the demographic. “Showing that we can move the dial on that, to me, is sort of encouraging.”
One major discrepancy in results came between black boys and girls.
Girls were less affected by exposure to a single black teacher, and they were more likely to graduate and consider college regardless, Papageorge said.
“The fact that it doesn’t really show up for girls, I don’t think is truly shocking,” Papageorge said. “Girls have very low dropout rates to begin with, so it’s hard to see movement there.”
Tom Tomberlin, director of district human resources at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, said the study’s findings make sense.
“It seems reasonable that students would want to see role models of teachers that look like them and know that they’ve been successful,” Tomberlin said. “I can imagine that would inspire them to perform better.”
If districts are able to match students to teachers of the same race, Tomberlin said the state should make that change possible as soon as possible.
But Tomberlin acknowledged that doing so would require diversification amongst the state’s teaching population.
“Overall, it looks like we have a three-to-one ratio of white teachers to black teachers. I also don’t think they’re equitably distributed across all of the counties,” Tomberlin said. “Where those counties are struggling, I would say they would do well to gear their recruitment efforts towards attracting a more diverse teaching population.”