A large body of research shows that Black students are likely to learn more when they are taught by a Black teacher. Quantitative researchers have found better results for Black students taught by Black teachers in Texas, Florida, Missouri, Tennessee and North Carolina. It’s one of the reasons that many education advocates have called for diversifying the teacher workforce, which is overwhelmingly white.
But a large study of a million elementary school students and nearly 35,000 teachers in North Carolina found that Black teachers aren’t always better for Black students. The race of the teacher didn’t affect the academic achievement of Black students in third through fifth grade across eight school years, from 2009-10 to 2017-18. Almost a quarter of the students were Black and they did just as well on their annual reading and math tests with a white teacher as they did with a Black one.
Instead, what mattered was where a teacher went to college. Both Black and white teachers trained at an historically black college or university (HBCU) helped Black students do better in math. Almost one out of 10 teachers in North Carolina graduated from an HBCU. Though not a large number, a quarter of these HBCU-trained teachers were white. During a year that a Black elementary school student had one of these HBCU-trained teachers, his or her math scores were higher. In the following year, if their teacher was trained elsewhere, these same Black students tended to post lower math scores.
“I thought that this has to be wrong somehow because so many papers have found an effect for a Black-teacher Black-student match,” said Lavar Edmonds, a graduate student in economics and education at Stanford University, who conducted the analysis. Edmonds ran the numbers in different ways “over and over again” and kept getting the same results. “I only note a same-race teacher effect for Black students when that teacher went to an HBCU.”
Previous studies weren’t necessarily wrong, but differences in the data can yield different results. For example, one earlier study focused on long-term outcomes, instead of test scores, and found higher college going rates for Black students taught by Black teachers. Edmonds’s study, “Role Models Revisited: HBCUs, Same Race Teacher Effects and Black Student Achievement,” hasn’t been peer reviewed or published in an academic journal, but an August 2022 draft was publicly posted. Bolstering Edmonds’s results is another unpublished national study of 18,000 students, presented at a September 2022 conference of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness. It also failed to find higher achievement in math, reading or science for students taught by a teacher of the same race.
The boost to math achievement for a Black student learning from an HBCU teacher wasn’t terribly large, but it was often larger than the benefit of having a Black teacher in previous studies. The increase in math test scores was equal to about 5 percent of the typical test score gap between Black and white students. White and Hispanic students weren’t penalized; they did just as well with HBCU teachers as they did with non-HBCU teachers.
It’s worth emphasizing that this HBCU teacher benefit was detected only in math – not in reading. Black children’s reading scores were unaffected by their teacher’s race or university.
Exactly what HBCUs are doing to train more effective math teachers is an excellent question and Edmonds admits he doesn’t know the answer. There are 11 HBCUs in North Carolina and five of them, such as Fayetteville State University and Elizabeth City State University, produced most of the teachers in this particular study. Historically, many of the nation’s 100 HBCUs were founded as teacher training grounds or “normal” schools. In North Carolina, half of all Black teachers hailed from an HBCU.
At first glance, one might think that HBCUs produce teachers of lower quality. In this study, the HBCU trained teachers posted much lower scores on their teacher certification exams, called Praxis. “They’re clearly outperforming more ‘qualified’ teachers,” said Edmonds. “At a minimum, this raises the question of what we’re measuring.”
Edmonds doubts that math instructional approaches at HBCUs are dramatically different from those at other teaching programs. “The general concept of adding is going to be more or less the same,” said Edmonds, a former high school math teacher himself.
Edmonds speculates that HBCU-trained teachers experienced a different culture and climate in college that they replicate in their own classrooms. “Many of my family members went to HBCUs and a recurring theme is how they found it more welcoming,” he said. “They felt more at peace, more at home at an HBCU. Warmer, I would say. I think there is a component of that in how a teacher conveys information to a student. If you’re getting more of that environment, yourself, as a student at these institutions, I think it makes a difference in your disposition as a teacher.”
To be sure, different types of people choose to attend an HBCU in the first place. HBCU students might have had life experiences before college that helped them better connect with Black children in their professional lives. It’s possible that HBCUs aren’t doing anything magical at all, but that the people who attend them are special.
Teacher race remains a big factor when it comes to student discipline. Black boys were more likely to be suspended with white teachers than with Black teachers, according to the study. But once again HBCU training makes a difference here too. Black boys were less likely to be suspended by an HBCU-trained white teacher than a white teacher who trained elsewhere. (HBCU training didn’t make a difference for the suspension rates of Black girls.)
Given that the teaching profession is overwhelmingly white – nearly 80 percent of teachers – it’s heartening to see a study that can perhaps shine a light on how white teachers might become more effective with Black students, even as we try to diversify the ranks.
Edmonds, who is Black, says the point of his paper is to help the field of education “think more deeply about teacher-student relationships” and what makes them work well in ways that can transcend race. “Not to say that race is not important, but I think if we are overly reliant on these characteristics, it’s a slippery slope, I think, to race essentialism,” he said.
HBCUs are clearly enjoying a renaissance. Applications to HBCUs spiked almost 30 percent from 2018 to 2021 even as the total number of U.S. undergraduate students dropped by almost 10 percent during the pandemic. This study suggests another reason why HBCUs remain relevant and important.
This story about HBCU teachers was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.