Politically incorrect paper of the month

African-Americans make up a larger proportion of students than teachers. Many educators say that as a result African-Americans students suffer because they lack role models and white students suffer because they lack diversity. In a newly published paper (working paper version), Thomas Dee (Swarthmore College) supports some but not all of this story. Using data from Tennessee’s Project Star, a very important experiment in which K-3 students were randomly assigned to small and regular sized classes, Dee finds that black students improve when they have black teachers. So far so good. Dee also finds, however, that white students improve when they have white teachers. Uh, oh. There goes the diversity is good for everyone story.

Dee is quick to point out that we don’t understand why students perform better with a teacher of their own race. If it is a role-model effect then why would white students perform poorly with black teachers – surely there are enough white role models to choose from that one more or less isn’t going to have an effect on the self-esteem of white students. Another theory, with some support from other studies, is that teachers spend more time helping students of their own race. Note that if it is the latter then better teacher training, to overcome natural biases, could improve the effectiveness of both white and black teachers.

The cite for the paper is Dee, Thomas S. 2004. Teachers, Race, and Student Achievement in a Randomized Experiment. The Review of Economics and Statistics 86(1): 195-210.