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April 1, 1999

Research Link / The Teacher-Student Mismatch

The U.S. student population is growing more ethnically and linguistically diverse. Approximately 70 percent of all public school students are white, 16 percent are black, and 10 percent are Hispanic (National Center for Education Statistics, 1998). But even as the student body has grown more heterogeneous, white women continue to dominate the teaching profession. Nearly three out of every four public school teachers are female, and 89 percent are white, whereas only 7 percent are black and 2 percent are Hispanic (Feistritzer, 1996).

Demographic Disparities

The disparity between the demographic profiles of teachers and students has been the source of considerable concern. Brookhart and Loadman (1996) argued that the dearth of male elementary teachers—fewer than 15 percent were male in 1993—"poses a representational problem in an educational system that increasingly values diversity" (p. 207). The same argument can be made with respect to racial and ethnic diversity.
In an educational system designed to celebrate diversity and inculcate democratic values, both minority and majority children need minority role models (Darling-Hammond & Sclan, 1996). Further, it is only natural for teachers to filter the curriculum through their own cultural experiences and to teach in much the same way they were taught. The mismatch between the racial and ethnic profiles of teachers and their students reduces the likelihood that teachers will connect learning to all their students in a meaningful way (Feiman-Nemser & Remillard, 1996).
Interestingly, not all studies establish a quantitative link among teacher and student racial and ethnic backgrounds and student achievement. Ehrenberg, Goldhaber, and Brewer used data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988 to match students with teachers on the basis of race, gender, and ethnicity (RGE) in four subject areas (1995). That is, they split teachers into female and male black, Hispanic, and white groups, for six teacher groups overall. For each of the six teacher groups, they looked at student gain scores between 8th and 10th grade on history, English, math, and science tests, broken down further by student race, gender, and ethnicity. They found very few significant interactions among student and teacher RGE and student achievement, leading them to conclude that their data provided "at best, little support for the notion that teachers' RGE per se influence how much students objectively learn" (p. 556). However, the researchers also looked at the 10th grade teachers' subjective evaluations of their students. In several instances, when teacher and student RGE were similar, teachers were more likely to provide positive subjective evaluations.

Toward a More Diverse Teaching Force

The fact that this particular study did not establish a clear connection between student and teacher RGE and student achievement does not undercut the urgent need for a diverse teaching force. Indeed, to the extent that the subjective evaluations of students reflected teachers' encouragement of those students, students' attitudes toward school would appear to be influenced by whether they had at least some teachers of similar race, gender, and ethnicity. But most students, no matter what their race or ethnicity, have only white teachers. For example, for each of the four subject areas in the study, only about 10 percent of 10th grade Hispanic students had a Hispanic teacher. Conversely, across the four subjects studied, approximately 95 percent of the white students had white teachers, suggesting that they had little exposure to role models from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Even if diversifying the teaching force were found to have no social or cognitive benefits for students, a strong argument could be made in favor of diversification on the basis of where teachers elect to teach. The National Association of State Boards of Education (1998) characterized the typical graduate of a teacher education program as "white, female, 21 years old, speaks only English, from a small town and wanting to teach in the same" (p. 14). Several researchers (Darling-Hammond & Sclan, 1996; Su, 1997) have made the point that minority teachers are more likely than white teachers to seek positions in poor urban schools, many of which may be desperate for qualified teachers in certain subject areas. Thus, increasing the percentage of accomplished minority teachers may well help improve the quality of instruction in poor urban schools in particular.
Calls to increase the proportion of minority and male teachers have coincided with a strong push to increase the overall size of the teaching force. Factors such as the "baby boom echo," the impending retirement of a large segment of the teaching population, and class-size reduction initiatives have all strained the current supply of accomplished teachers. Most estimates place the demand for new teachers at more than 2 million over the next decade, a figure that is higher than the number of doctors, lawyers, and engineers combined (Sowell, 1993). This immense demand has led many educational reformers to characterize the dawn of the 21st century as a time of daunting challenge tinged with great hope. The challenge comes in trying to build an enormous cadre of accomplished teachers that reflects the diversity of American society. The hope stems from the potential for significantly reshaping the teaching force as 2 million new recruits flood into the field. Who those new teachers are will have deep, long-lasting implications for the quality of the teaching force for the first several decades of the new millennium.

Brookhart, S. M., & Loadman, W. E. (1996). Characteristics of male elementary teachers in the U.S.A., at teacher education program entry and exit. Teaching & Teacher Education, 12, 197-210.

Darling-Hammond, L., & Sclan, E. M. (1996). Who teaches and why: Dilemmas of building a profession for 21st century schools. In J. Sikula, T. J. Buttery, & E. Guyton (Eds.), Handbook of research on teacher education (2nd ed., pp. 67-101). New York: Macmillan.

Ehrenberg, R. G., Goldhaber, D. D., & Brewer, D. J. (1995). Do teachers' race, gender, and ethnicity matter? Evidence from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988. Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 48, 547-561.

Feiman-Nemser, S., & Remillard, J. (1996). Perspectives on learning to teach. In F. B. Murray (Ed.), The teacher educator's handbook: Building a knowledge base for the preparation of teachers (pp. 63-91). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Feistritzer, C. E. (1996). Profile of teachers in the U.S. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Information.

National Association of State Boards of Education. (1998). The numbers game: Ensuring quantity and quality in the teaching workforce. Alexandria, VA: Author.

National Center for Education Statistics. (1998). Digest of education statistics 1997 [On-line]. Available:

Sowell, T. (1993). Inside American education: The decline, the deception, the dogmas. New York: The Free Press.

Su, Z. (1997). Teaching as a profession and as a career: Minority candidates' perspectives. Teaching & Teacher Education, 13, 325-340.

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