August 8, 2016 — As schools work to close socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps between their students, a new study from the University of Virginia's Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning suggests that the background of the teachers in the front of pre-kindergarten classrooms can make a big difference.
In a study conducted by Jason Downer, director of CASTL and a professor in UVA;s Curry School of Education, and his colleagues that involved matching a preschool student's race with that of his or her teacher, it was found that male African-American students were reported to have fewer problem behaviors in pre-K when they were paired with an African-American teacher.
"Is it that African-American teachers have a better understanding of African-American boys' behavior, or have more culturally relevant tools to help with supporting African-American boys' self-regulation in the classroom?" Downer said. "Or is it that white teachers are over-reporting behavioral issues in African-American boys due to implicit biases? These would each lead to very different pre-service training and professional development for teachers."
Additionally, Downer pointed out that nearly one in three U.S. children lives in a household where a language other than English is spoken. In the race-matching study, non-English-proficient Latino children demonstrated higher literacy scores when they were placed in a classroom with a Latino teacher.
"Is it that non-English-proficient Latino children in Latino teachers' classrooms get more exposure to bilingual instruction, which gives the child an opportunity to draw on both English and Spanish language in learning emergent literacy skills?" Downer said. "If so, this could have policy implications for providing dual-language support in schools."
The study's findings are significant at a time when African-American boys are referred to special education more often than their peers and also receive harsher self-discipline at a much higher rate, Downer said.
Robert C. Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education and co-author of the study, said examining these issues within the context of preschool education offers important insight into the years that follow.
"Preschools are the most diverse places in America and offer us an opportunity to examine some of the factors that may contribute to effective education for the wide range of children in the U.S.," he said. "This specific study was designed to examine one factor — match — and its relation or not to kids' performance."
The race-matching study, which Downer and Pianta conducted in conjunction with fellow CASTL researchers Priscilla Goble and Sonya Myers, was recently published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly.
Downer spoke with UVA Today about the significance of the study and how the pre-K experience sets the tone for the rest of a student's academic career.
Q. Why is this topic worth exploring?
A. In this study, and across early childhood programs nationwide, early childhood educators continue to be mostly white. In an increasingly diverse society with emphasis on a global economy, it is important to work toward diversifying the pre-K teacher workforce to be more representative of the population at large.
Q. What are the greater implications of this topic?
A. Access to early education in the U.S. has been expanding for low-income kids as a means of addressing the achievement gap between kids from low-income families and their more advantaged peers. The cultural and linguistic diversity of these low-income preschoolers is growing.
In this context, there are questions about whether early education in the U.S. is ready to serve the needs of diverse youth, particularly given the lack of diversity in the early educator workforce. This race/ethnicity mismatch between teachers and students only becomes more pronounced as kids enter the K-12 system.
Q. How does addressing this issue at the pre-K level influence the rest of a child's school career and beyond?
A. Since it is the first school experience for many young, low-income children, it is therefore setting the stage for how they think about the school environment. High-quality pre-K has the potential to help young, at-risk children become better prepared for school entry. This study suggests that racial/ethnic match between a teacher and pre-K child may contribute to how much children benefit from their pre-K experience.
Q. What has your research on this topic consisted of and what have you found?
A. Research at CASTL has established how important it is that children experience supportive, responsive and cognitively stimulating interactions with early educators, regardless of race/ethnicity. And, there is evidence to suggest that teacher professional development can improve these interactions and teacher-child relationships.
For example, I'm part of a team that developed online modules for teachers that focus on ways to build relationships with all kids in a classroom. We did an evaluation of it this past year in elementary and middle school classrooms, and found that participating teachers reported having closer relationships with the most challenging students in their classrooms (and those students were largely boys and African-American/Hispanic).
Q. What needs to happen next?
A. More research is needed to tease apart how teachers of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds think about the students in their classrooms; implicit biases are a sensitive topic — how do we identify, acknowledge and address them while also respecting teachers' commitment to education?
We also need more observational studies to follow diverse students into different kinds of classroom environments to see what they are experiencing on a day-to-day basis, and how this might be linked to teachers with similar and different backgrounds.
Bottom line: Given that teachers' daily interactions and relationships with children are central to learning, we need to dig deeper to learn how the race/ethnicity match between student and teacher is contributing to a child's pre-K experience, so that we can identify the key ingredients for success and then ensure that teachers of all backgrounds receive training to meet the individual needs of an increasingly diverse set of children.