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Study: The 'Role Model Effect' Can Impact High School Dropout Rates

Having one black teacher in elementary school can have lasting effects on high school dropout rates and intentions on attending college, according to a new study.
High School Celebrates First Post-Katrina Graduation
NEW ORLEANS - JUNE 8: Students from John McDonogh Senior High School's first graduating class since Hurricane Katrina, celebrate at their commencement June 8, 2007 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The struggling inner city school was damaged by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 and students were only able to re-enroll in the school last fall, a year after the hurricane struck. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)Mario Tama / Getty Images

Having one Black teacher in elementary school can have lasting effects on high school dropout rates and student intentions on attending college, according to a new study.

After looking at data from public school systems in North Carolina and Tennessee, the study, The Long-Run Impacts of Same-Race Teachers, found that having one Black teacher in grades 3-5 reduced the probability of a low-income Black male student dropping out of high school by 39 percent. For Black males and females, the intent of attending a four-year college went up by 19 percent. When isolating Black males only, this effect was stronger, with the intent increasing by 29 percent.

Nick Papageorge, assistant professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of the study, is still looking into why this may be the case. He and co-author Seth Gershenson looked into the concept of “teacher expectations” in a different paper two years ago, where they found some interesting results.

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“[The paper] looked at how if you have a Black and a white teacher looking at the same 10th grade student, if that student is white, the Black and the white teacher agree about how far they think that student is going to go in school,” Papageorge said. “Whereas if you have a Black student, who's in the 10th grade, with a Black and a white teacher, those teachers are going to sort of systematically disagree with the Black teacher having much higher expectations.”

They became curious to see whether these discrepancies mattered in the long-term. Papageorge looked at academic research papers that discussed teacher-student race matching but found that most of these papers only looked at test scores. The goal of this current working paper is to look forward to high school and college. He hopes to continue his research into college graduation rates, employment, and even income.

Mario Tama / Getty Images

Another theory Papageorge discussed to explain the study’s results was the “Role Model Effect.”

“These kids, especially if they are poor, lack role models. Let’s say, if I don’t see anybody that looks like me that often who is a college educated professional, I might just start to think that that’s not something for me – that’s not something that’s available to me. If I get to spend a whole year with a college educated professional that looks like me, then maybe that will switch around how I perceive those outcomes.”

One unsettling part of the findings of this study is the idea that matching Black students to Black teachers can enforce ideas of segregation.

“We’re saying that only one Black teacher seems to have a bigger effect, so it’s not like we have to segregate these kids into all-Black schools with only Black teachers. But when we start to think about, for example, certain findings showing that girls do better in all-girl schools, well that’s an uncomfortable truth. I don’t have an answer to this,” Papageorge said.

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Papageorge’s passion for education came from his time with Teach for America, a fairly controversial program amongst educators as it puts recent graduates who normally do not have teaching degrees in classrooms located in underprivileged neighborhoods. However, he felt his experience with the organization gave him a unique perspective for this study.

“I had such a hard time matching these depressing statistics with the kids that I actually taught. How are we just wasting this potential? These kids are smart, understanding, and curious. That’s always been a puzzle for me. How can we have this functioning democracy when we also have kids that go to schools that are under-resourced?”

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