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When Black Boys Have Black Teachers

March 8, 2024
SESP alumni Cassandra Hart (left) and Constance Lindsey

Black teachers are less likely to identify same race students as needing special education services, according to new research by Northwestern University alumni Cassandra Hart (PhD11) and Constance Lindsay (PhD10). The relationship was strongest for economically disadvantaged students.

Hart and Lindsey also found that the connection is especially strong in special education categories that are more open to teacher discretion, such as learning disabilities.

The findings add to the growing body of evidence that Black children can benefit when they have access to same-race teachers. It also underscores the importance of a diverse workforce. 

“Access to Black teachers most strongly affects precisely the types of special disability placements that are more subject to teacher discretion, and therefore where the need for services is more questionable,” said Hart, a professor of education at the University of California, Davis.

For their study, published in the American Educational Research Journal, Hart and Lindsay drew on rich statewide administrative data from North Carolina that included more than 540,000 observations of Black children in grades 1 to 4 and their assigned teachers from 2008–08 through 2012–13.

They noted that special education placement, when appropriate, can be beneficial for children. However, concerns arise when children are exposed to the potential stigma of special education in cases where the benefits may be less pronounced and the need for services may be more discretionary. Prior research has also suggested that Black teachers hold higher expectations for Black students.

“It may be that Black teachers interpret certain behaviors as simple inattentiveness rather than a disability, or that Black students respond to Black teachers with more engagement,” said Lindsay, assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Approximately 7 percent of teachers nationwide are Black, compared to 15 percent of students, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Hart and Lindsay also found that Black teachers were less likely to identify White children for disability services than non-Black teachers, although the relationship was not as strong as it was with Black boys.

“Black teachers may be simply less likely across the board to suggest screening for disabilities,” Lindsay said. “Regardless of the reason, this finding is consistent with prior research showing that diversifying teachers does not harm, and often benefits, non-Black students as well.”

This article was adapted from an AERA press release.