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Why Teachers Teach at Low-Performing Schools: Representation Matters

April 10, 2020

Representation helps strengthen communities and improve student outcomes in elementary, middle, and high schools. Representation means that teachers, principals, and other leaders reflect the demographics of the student body in the schools they serve. A Johns Hopkins University study provides evidence for just how much representation matters in student outcomes, reporting that black students are 13 percent more likely to enter college if they had at least one black teacher by the third grade. The likelihood of college enrollment more than doubles (32 percent) for black students with at least two black teachers in elementary school, according to the study.

Debates about the inequities and gaps in the US education system and how to address them are ongoing. One strategy of academic leaders and school districts is to hire teachers who reflect students’ racial and cultural identities.

Life at Low-Performing Schools

According to the US Department of Education (DOE), low-performing schools are those that rank in the bottom 10 percent in their state. Students in low-performing school districts show significant academic achievement gaps. These schools tend to have large student populations with low-income backgrounds and a high number of minorities.

Students with a history of poverty may have challenges outside of school that impact their academic success, like taking care of their younger siblings or dealing with a lack of food, water, and heat in their homes, to name a few. Their counterparts in affluent schools face fewer struggles.

Another issue at play is unequal school funding. Consider that high-poverty school districts get $1,200 less per student than affluent schools, according to an EdTrust report. These deficits hurt students by depriving them of opportunities to learn at the same level as their counterparts. Smaller budgets mean less access to resources and technology critical for STEM-related subjects such as mathematics and technology.

Low-performing schools also struggle with high turnover rates among teachers and administrators. These schools must demonstrate academic improvements or school administrators might lose their jobs. As for teachers, many leave the profession or move to different school districts, and, on many occasions, inexperienced teachers fill the open roles.

Often, teachers and students don’t share similar backgrounds, especially in high-poverty school districts with large minority student populations. This means that minority students rarely have teachers who look like them or share their life experience. However, increased representation, or having more teachers of the same race and with similar backgrounds as their students, has proven to improve academic performance.

For example, a recent study published by the Institute of Labor Economics noted that 39 percent of black male students who had to a black teacher in elementary school remain in high school.

Teaching at Low-Performance Schools

High staff turnover is a challenge to quality in education. It adds to the growing teacher shortage, putting high-poverty students at risk. Lack of quality teachers translates into larger class sizes and higher student-to-teacher ratios, which means students get less personal attention. The deficit creates low morale and places a lot of pressure on teachers to do more with less, making it difficult for the teachers who remain in their jobs to be effective.

Low-performing school settings can be rough for teachers. One in 20 teachers considers teaching a stressful job that’s not worth it, according to an Economic Policy Institute (EPI) study. The report cites students’ unpreparedness, uninvolved parents, and lack of school investment as factors.

Despite the challenges, some teachers find it worthwhile to work in such environments. A recent EdSurge article presented one of these teachers. He works in a low-performing middle school in one of Detroit’s toughest neighborhoods. He stays because he believes his students deserve access to a quality education.

A key way this Detroit teacher represents his students is through personalized instruction, a teaching method that helps to address the unique academic needs of each student. Personalized instruction requires that teachers build relationships with students to understand and address their individual requirements. Then, through the use of technology, teachers can more easily tailor instruction to individual students. For example, apps such as Quizlet and Edpuzzle promote independent learning and enable students to review lessons on challenging topics that relate to their personal abilities and interests.

Representation can play a crucial role in successfully applying personalized instruction. For example, teachers who live in the same neighborhood as their students understand the challenges they face outside of school, providing opportunities to personalize lessons accordingly.

Part of the challenge teachers face is that they feel they have little influence over what they can teach in their classrooms, according to the EPI report. One way to address this concern is taking a more people-focused approach. The principal of a middle school in Louisville did just that, as reported in the Courier Journal. According to this principal, people are an essential resource for transforming a school. She sees the people-centric approach as common sense and necessary for retaining teachers.

Why Teacher Representation Matters

A 2018 Pew Research report notes that only 20 percent of educators across the country come from minority backgrounds. The data points to a lack of representation in schools. Children base their visions of their futures on what they see in their everyday environments. In their classrooms, minority students can envision what’s possible for them when the people who are teaching them look like them and have a similar background. Therefore, building academic environments where students can see role models in their teachers and teachers can better understand their students can help improve student outcomes.

Seeing Is Believing

Children watching TV imagine what’s possible in their lives based on what people who look like them are doing in front of their eyes. Students in classrooms also imagine what’s possible in their lives. If they don’t see teachers who resemble them in appearance or background, they might not grasp the idea that they too can succeed, according to a recent Edutopia article.

Connecting and Understanding

Teachers with different backgrounds from their students may find it difficult to understand their students’ challenges. This, in turn, may undercut the teacher’s effectiveness in inspiring student performance. Steps teachers can take to help close the gap include learning about students’ cultures and sharing information about their own culture. It’s also important to discuss the challenges of stereotypes in the media and the world in general. Teachers should take the initiative to introduce inclusive instructional materials.

Expectations Are Key

Students’ academic achievements are influenced by their teachers’ expectations. For instance, the likelihood of a student finishing college rises for both white and black student populations when a teacher holds that expectation, according to a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The study reveals black students received the “strongest endorsements from black teachers.” However, due to a lack of black teacher representation, black students “have less chance to reap the benefit of high expectations than their white peers,” according to the report.

Effective teachers create classroom cultures with high expectations that promote ethical behavior, such as discouraging cheating on tests. Representation in the classroom enables students to see their teacher as an ally, helping them understand the value of following classroom rules. While teachers encourage students to perform at their best, expectations must also be attainable.

Teachers can help maximize student success by increasing student engagement and creating positive energy in the classroom. Representation in the classroom is relevant in this context because it helps

What Can Be Done

The Department of Education supports states and districts in their school improvement efforts through programs such as the Turnaround School Leaders Program (TSLP). TSLP provides an accountability framework. It focuses on forming partnerships that help build up the skills and knowledge of educators and leaders. Project participants include aspiring leaders, many who move on to become principals, assistant principals, and other administrators.

Besides federal programs for improving school performance, experts cite promoting parent involvement, increasing diversity among advanced student populations, and achieving education equity through innovative learning approaches, among other strategies.

An advanced teaching degree, such as a master’s degree, can help teachers improve their teaching methods and thus aid low-performing schools. American University’s Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership emphasizes how equity at all levels, from teaching practice through policy creation, can better education. Graduates become culturally informed educators and explore ways to support diverse learners.

Ready to make a difference by closing opportunity and achievement gaps for a brighter future? Learn more about how American University’s online Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership program can help you become an equitable and empowering education policy leader.