Posted on September 7, 2011

An ‘Instructor Like Me’

Inside Higher Ed, September 6, 2011

Nonwhite students at community colleges are more likely to stay in classes and to earn higher grades if they have instructors of their race or ethnicity, according to a study released Monday by the National Bureau for Economic Research. But the same is true for white students, meaning that hiring more minority instructors may result in decreased performance by white students.

The positive impact of having a same-race instructor appears to be the greatest on black students, and on younger students.

The study, “A Community College Instructor Like Me: Race and Ethnicity Interactions in the Classroom,” may be controversial, since it touches on several hot-button issues in higher education, including racial gaps in academic performance of students and affirmative action in faculty hiring. {snip} The abstract is available here.

{snip} Their analysis is based on a large data set (more than 30,000 students in more than 21,000 course sections) provided by De Anza College, a community college in Northern California. {snip}

De Anza has a diverse student body: Asians make up the largest group (51 percent), followed by white students (28 percent), Latino students (14 percent), black students (4 percent) and other nonwhite students, including Native American and Pacific Islanders (3 percent). {snip}

At De Anza, the instructors are much more likely than the students to be white. Seventy percent are. {snip}

Among all nonwhite groups, the study found a gain of 2.9 percentage points in the proportion of students completing courses taught by instructors of the same race as students–cutting in half the gaps in minority vs. white course completion rates. {snip}

Among students who don’t drop out, there are also gaps between the performance of white and Asian students and that of other groups, especially black students. For instance, of those students who don’t drop out, 89 percent of white and Asian students pass, compared to 82 percent of black students; and 68 percent of white and Asian students who complete courses earn at least a B, while only 53 percent of black students do. For black students taught by a black instructor, there was a gain of 13 percentage points–among those who completed the course–in the proportion earning a B or higher.

At the same time, the authors note that there were declines in various performance measures for white students taught by non-white instructors.

The authors write that their findings may leave some wondering whether minority students learn more effectively from minority instructors or whether those minority instructors give better grades to minority students than do white instructors. They rule out discrimination (positive or negative) from the instructors by looking at additional data. First, they note that the dropout rates are constant by race and ethnicity, even before the instructor has handed out the first set of grades–so these patterns aren’t motivated in significant part by hard or lenient grading.

Further, they note that the shift in academic performance by minority students is most evident for younger students (for the purposes of this study, up to 21.5 years old), with hardly any impact on older students. If the students were reacting to discrimination by instructors, the impact should be evident among older students as well, the authors write. {snip}

Another possible factor is that talented minority students might seek out minority instructors, but the researchers write that there is evidence only for a small impact of “sorting,” and that they control for it.