Study finds that students score higher on tests, if they have teachers who share their racial background

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

The results are troubling," says Thomas S. Dee, assistant professor of economics at Swarthmore College. "Black students learn more from black teachers and white students from white teachers, suggesting that the racial dynamics within classrooms may contribute to the persistent racial gap in student performance, at least in Tennessee.

In the forthcoming issue of Education Next (Spring, 2004), Dee reports that, after one year, African American students scored about 3 percentile points higher on the mathematics portion of the Stanford Achievement Test, if they had a teacher of the same racial background. Reading scores were raised by about half this much. Both differences represent about one third of the black-white test score gap among students in Tennessee.

Similar gains were observed for white students, if they share their teachers' racial background.

Even larger gains were observed when students had teachers of the same racial background in consecutive years.

Dee's results are consistent with frequent recommendations that school districts with large minority enrollments should aggressively recruit minority teachers. However, he recommends additional research to examine why white teachers are not as effective with black students as black teachers appear to be. "We don't really know why the racial interactions in classrooms matter. If we did, it might suggest changes in teacher training and practices that make teacher effectiveness race-neutral."

Dee points out that only 8 percent of public-school teachers nationwide are African American, while 17 percent of public-school students are. As a result, African American students have a lower chance of having a teacher who shares their race.

Dee's results are especially significant because they are based on data gathered from a randomized field trial of the effects of class size on student performance conducted in Tennessee. Because teachers and students were randomly assigned to classrooms, the data allow for experimental estimates of the effects of a teacher's race on student performance.

"The Race Connection" can be read in its entirety in the Spring 2004 issue of Education Next, and online at

Thomas S. Dee is an assistant professor of economics at Swarthmore College and a faculty research fellow of the National Bureau of Economic Research. This article is adapted from a study that will appear in The Review of Economics and Statistics.

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution, committed to looking at hard facts about school reform. The editors of Education Next are Paul E. Peterson, Professor of Government, Harvard University and Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution; Chester E. Finn Jr., President, Fordham Foundation and Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution; Marci Kanstoroom, education consultant; Frederick M. Hess, Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute; and Martin West, Research Associate, Harvard University.

The Hoover Institution, founded at Stanford University in 1919 by Herbert Hoover, who went on to become the 31st president of the United States, is an interdisciplinary research center for advanced study on domestic public policy and international affairs, with an internationally renowned archive.

Located near Philadelphia, Swarthmore is a highly selective liberal arts college whose mission combines academic rigor with social responsibility. Swarthmore, with an enrollment of 1,450, is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country.

Working Press: Contact -
Thomas S. Dee
(610) 690-5767
dee [at]