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US school students of color: We want teachers who look like us

As the racial gap between America's majority-white teacher cohort and majority-minority student population grabs headlines, a study shows why students want more teachers of color.

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    Kindergarten teacher Michele Stinson asks how many students have been in a school setting before at Freeman Elementary, Monday, Aug. 15, 2016, in Flint, Mich.
    Jake May/The Flint Journal-MLive.com/AP
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American school kids prefer teachers of color, a new study shows.

As the demographic make-up of US students has tipped toward a minority-majority, much has been made of the contrast seen in the nation's predominantly white body of teachers. For the first time, educators now have a glimpse of what that racial imbalance might mean to middle and high school students, thanks to new analysis conducted by researchers at New York University. 

Using survey data compiled by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the researchers canvassed the thoughts of more than 50,000 students about 1,680 teachers. 

The survey data included students' rankings of their teachers based on "7Cs" – Challenge, Classroom Management, Care, Confer, Captivate, Clarify, and Consolidate. Importantly, the researchers note, students were asked to give feedback on specific teachers, not the overall teacher workforce at their school. This meant researchers could control for other reasons students may prefer certain teachers.

Among key findings, the research suggests that students feel they relate to teachers of color better than their white counterparts, and that, in turn, this may create an environment more conducive to learning.

"This study provides empirical evidence that at least from the student perspective, there is something really different going on," study author Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng, an assistant professor of international education at NYU, told the New York Daily News.

Currently, the American teacher workforce is overwhelmingly white. In 34 states, the demographic gap between minority students and their white teachers is more than 20 percentage points, and some studies suggest this gap is growing. The gap is particularly pronounced in urban centers like New York. The Big Apple has an 85 percent racial/ethnic minority public school population, but only 40 percent of its teachers are non-white – a 45 percentage-point differential.

The study suggests that a core reason teachers of color may find favor with students is because they have experienced the feeling of being a non-dominant member of society and thus understand their challenges better.

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“When I look at my children I see myself ... I also know that being smart has nothing to do with skin color,” Valentine, an African American female teacher who has taught in both urban and suburban schools, interviewed for the study said.

Previous research suggests that when students feel a greater sense of connection to their teachers it can boost academic performance. This connection is partly attributed to the expectations their teachers have of them.

Referencing that data, the study put it bluntly: “Teachers have higher expectations of White and Asian American students and lower expectations of Latino and Black students.”

It also explored whether so-called race matching of students and teachers affected grades. Results were mixed with some saying it can boost grades and others saying it did not make a measurable difference.

However, it found black students were particularly fond of their black teachers, Latino students were ambivalent, and Asian-American students also gave high ratings to their black teachers.

"For white teachers, I strongly believe that if we study more what's going on with minority teachers and how they develop relationships with all of their students ... we can train all teachers to do this," Professor Cherng told the Daily News.

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