People of color make up 18 percent of the nation's teachers. But new, unpublished research suggests they have an outsized effect on minority students.
Black students who have just one black teacher in elementary school are more likely to graduate from high school and consider college, according to the study by researchers including Johns Hopkins University economist Nicholas Papageorge.
The researchers looked at the experiences of 100,000 black students who entered third grade in North Carolina between 2001 and 2005.
They found that having one black teacher between third and fifth grade reduced a black student's probability of dropping out of school by 29 percent.
For very-low-income black boys, the probability dropped by 39 percent.
Papageorge said the researchers went to Tennessee to see if the effect could be observed outside North Carolina. They got similar results.
Papageorge said researchers do not know why black teachers help prevent black students from dropping out. They are planning to test some of their theories before they publish their paper.
For instance, he said, black teachers could be better-than-average educators. If so, they should have a positive impact on all their students, which researchers can measure.
It might be the case, he said, that teachers of color have higher expectations for their black students than white teachers do.
The researchers believe they might also find that black students respond well to role models who look like them. If students never see a black teacher, Papageorge said, they might conclude that working hard in school won't change their futures.
"I think expectations are crucial to understanding how people make investments," Papageorge said. If he told his undergraduate students their college degree would make no difference in their lives, he said, they would all drop out of college.
Emory Young, president of the Baltimore County Parent Teacher Association, said students need black teachers throughout their school careers, not just during the formative years in elementary school. Students don't always want to listen to their parents, he said, but a good teacher can offer important support.
"You still need the support structure," he said. "You need other people to help you see that anything is possible."
The research, Papageorge said, suggests that schools should reassign teachers and students as much as possible to make sure that black students have a teacher who looks like them at some point during their elementary school years.
That might be difficult in Maryland, where more than half of the public school population is students of color.
Having a teacher of the same race is just one of many factors that could be used to improve education for black students, Papageorge said.