By Mimi Kirk
Ashley McCall was teaching her third grade students about American voting rights last year when one of them asked a question she couldn’t answer: How do older people of color process the evolution of the right to vote?
McCall, a black teacher whose student body is mostly of color, asked her own grandparents to do a video conference with the class. They fielded students’ vibrant inquiries about having lived in the south during the civil rights era.
“It was awesome,” says McCall.
McCall says her identity has been crucial for her students at César E. Chávez Multicultural Academic Center on the south side of Chicago.
“Having teachers of color allows students to see people who look like them in positions of influence,” she says. “Students believe they can assume their own roles of authority.”
McCall’s perception is backed by new academic research. A recent study published by the Institute of Labor Economics found that if a low-income black male student in third, fourth, or fifth grade has a black teacher, he is 39 percent less likely to drop out of high school. And if a low-income black male or female student of the same age has a black teacher (especially of the same gender), they are more likely to plan to attend a four-year college. Females were 19 percent more likely to express this intent, while males were 29 percent more likely. The benefit came from having just one black teacher; having two or more black teachers did not alter the results.
Yet teachers of color are a relative rarity. The National Education Association has found that while students of color make up almost half of the public school population, teachers of color comprise only 16 percent of all teachers. Black teachers are also more likely to be clustered in high-need, economically disadvantaged urban schools.