Black Teachers, White Students

July 13, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Two years ago, in an episode of his podcast “Revisionist History,” Malcolm Gladwell took issue with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. In that famous decision, the Court ruled that the problem of segregated schools was that they were inherently harmful to Black children. In Gladwell’s view, the real problem of government-mandated segregation was that it denied Black people school choice. But that was also true, in the aftermath of Brown, of government-mandated integration.

The result, says Gladwell, is that desegregation was not good for Black kids. And it certainly wasn’t good for Black teachers, at least not teachers in places like Topeka, Kansas.

Across the entire south, Black teachers just get fired left and right. It wasn’t something done secretly; it was done right out in the open. There was something like 82,000 African-American teachers in the south before the Brown decision. Within a decade, as the decision was slowly implemented across the country, about half had been fired.

Gladwell has fallen out of favor with academic social scientists, who complain that in his desire to tell a good story, he’ll use data from studies that are methodologically shoddy. (See my 2013 post here). But Owen Thompson, an economist at Williams College, heard Gladwell’s podcast and dug into the data. His recent NBER paper backs up Gladwell’s claims about Brown and teachers in the South.

Using newly assembled archival data from 781 southern school districts observed between 1964 and 1972, I estimate that a school district transitioning from fully segregated to fully integrated education, which approximates the experience of the modal southern district in this period, led to a 31.8% reduction in black teacher employment. ( Owen Thompson, “School Desegregation and Black Teacher Employment.”) [The paper is behind the NBER paywall. This is from the abstract..]

The dearth of Black teachers had a devastating effect on Black students, especially the best and the brightest. It’s not that the kids no longer had Black role models or that the White teachers were prejudiced. The problem is that White teachers apparently are just not able to perceive talent in Black kids. Gladwell draws on the research of Jason Grissom and Christopher Redding about who gets into Gifted and Talented programs. In this audio clip from the podcast, Gladwell talks with Grissom.

Here is an edited down transcript of the clip. I’m leaving out the part about all the relevant variables in the equation. The point is that even after you control for all these variables (including, of course, test scores), race differences persist. So it’s not about the kids. It’s the teachers.

Grissom: In the overwhelming majority of school districts in the United States, the way that a kid ever gets to be identified as gifted is if someone in the school, usually a classroom teacher, has to look at that kid and say, “I think this kid might be gifted.” If I am a Black student and I have a Black classroom teacher, the probability that I’m assigned to giftedness in, in the next year looks very much like the probability for a White student. But if I am a Black student and I have a White classroom teacher, my probability of being identified as gifted is substantially lower.

Gladwell: How much lower?

Grissom: Okay, so for very high achieving Black students, the probability of being assigned to gifted services under a White teacher is about half the probability as an observably similar Black student taught by a Black teacher.

Less gifted and talented Black kids also suffered.

Gladwell: Having a Black teacher raises the test scores of Black students, it changes the way Black students behave, and it dramatically decreases the chances a Black male student will be suspended. A group of social scientists recently went over the records of 100,000 Black students in North Carolina over a 5 year period. They found that having even one Black teacher between the third and fifth grade reduced the chance of an African-American boy would later drop out of high school. By how much? By 39%. One Black teacher.

Again, my guess is that here too it’s not about role models. The problem is that people, teachers included, have difficulty “reading” someone of another race. Eyewitnesses make far more mistakes identifying someone of another race than someone of their own race. In the same way, White teachers may be less able to sense the needs of Black students and to know how to respond to them.

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