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Is Representation Enough to Solve Educational Disparities?

SPA Researchers Find Limited Positive Effect of Minority Teacher Representation in Communities with Racial Bias

Studies have long shown that students of color receive disparate treatment in U.S. public schools, causing many to lag in educational outcomes.

A new analysis by researchers at AU School of Public Affairs (SPA) shows that those gaps persist—despite efforts to diversify the teaching workforce––particularly in communities in which citizens hold widespread negative stereotypes about race.

SPA Assistant Professor Nathan Favero and Joohyung Park, SPA/PhD ’23, recently published these findings in “Race, Locality, and Representative Bureaucracy: Does Community Bias Matter?” in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory.

The researchers looked closely at student placement into gifted programs and suspension trends by racial group, along with the racial makeup of the teaching workforce and attitudes in the community. They created a cross-sectional data set, covering 11 states, with information from the 2015-16 Civil Rights Data Collection, results of surveys from 2003 to 2016 on explicit and implicit racial biases by Project Implicit Bias, and data from the U.S. Department of Education racial composition of teachers.

The analysis found that Black teacher representation is more likely to benefit Black students, yielding more gifted class assignments and fewer out-of-school suspensions, in communities with an overall low racial bias.

“In a highly biased community, the positive effect of minority teachers is limited because of the cultural impact and pressure from outside,” Park said.

These results underscore the fact that race-based disparities in educational outcomes is not going away, said Favero. While work to improve representation in the classroom deserves credit, that alone, he added, is not enough to solve the problem.

“Having a Black teacher as a Black student doesn't necessarily mean the same thing everywhere,” Favero said. “We need to zoom out and think about what is happening in the community and pay more attention to social-cultural environment when assessing public systems.”

The paper does not address remedies, but Favero said the findings suggest a need for a national dialogue about race, a review of diversity training for effectiveness, and moving away from punitive systems in schools that results in uneven outcomes.

Park, in his first publication, valued the collaboration with Favero, who guided him from how to best frame the research question to how to respond to reviewers’ comments.

“[Favero] helped me with each step of the process. Now, I will feel confident next time,” said Park, who expects to complete his doctorate this year. His research interests include examining how public managers reconcile bureaucratic and democratic values in the policymaking and implementation process.