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Role Models and Expectations

by Albert B. Kelly, Mayor, City of Bridgeton

As far back as I can remember, when it came to equality, the main underlying assumption was that remedies had to center on integration of one sort or another—in the area of housing, education, healthcare, or other area of American life was being considered. The idea of integration in the pursuit of equality is still a given today, as it should be, even though we seem to be as divided as ever. Progress has been made, but maybe integration as currently understood is only part of the equation.

The dictionary defines integration as “the process of opening a group, community, place, or organization to all, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or social class.” If that were the extent of it (i.e. one part of the equation), then someone might assume there’s little left to do. Yet, integration is also defined as “a combination of parts or objects that work together well.” If that’s the measure, then things aren’t where they need to be.

Perhaps it’s time to shift gears a little—starting in areas such as education or healthcare—and move beyond the idea of just opening something up to provide access. Maybe we need to drill down a little deeper into relationships, into the “work together well” part of the equation. As an example, over the last few years several studies have been done in the area of same-race teachers and same-race doctors and there are some important takeaways.

Focusing on the subject of education, authors Seth Gershenson, Constance Lindsey, Cassandra Hart, and Nicholas Papageorge did a paper for the IZA Institute of Labor Economics that discussed the long-term impacts of same-race teachers. In a nutshell, they demonstrate that assigning black male students to black teachers in third, fourth, or fifth grade significantly lowers the chance that these students, especially at-risk students, will drop out of high school. They also show that for at-risk black students of both sexes, having at least one black teacher in those formative years increases the likelihood that these students will attend a four-year college. These findings were featured in the podcast Hidden Brain in an episode entitled “People Like Us: How Our Identities Shape Health and Educational Success.”

Giving educators the benefit of the doubt, I think these findings come down to expectations or what the authors refer to as “differences in perceptions and expectations.” Simply put, black teachers expect more from black students than white teachers do and they cite a 2016 study that looks at this. If adults don’t expect much, they won’t invest much. When that happens, children know, they just do, and it shapes how they see themselves in the world—whether in college or flipping burgers or worse.

The other factor in my view, likely involves discipline. I’m referring to the 2018 Government Accounting Office (GAO) report entitled “Discipline Disparities for Black Students, Boys, and Students with disabilities,” which highlights disparities in disciplinary actions in public schools and how these break down along racial lines. Low expectations and harsh discipline, when a student lives down to those expectations, is a set-up for failure.

As far as possible measures to increase the exposure of black students to black teachers during these formative years, the authors wrote: “the number of black teachers need not be dramatically increased to close racial gaps in educational attainment. Rather, our results suggest that efforts to match black students with at least one black teacher in primary school could begin immediately, by thoughtfully matching students to current teachers.”

This is encouraging because the start of a solution doesn’t necessarily mean throwing more money at a problem as much as it means reconsidering how existing personnel are used and deployed. My guess is that these findings may well hold true for other racial and ethnic groups.

The focus with integration has been mainly on accessing opportunity. This effort needs to continue, but for deeper, more lasting generational change, maybe it’s time to consider the combination of parts and if they’re working together well enough.

Mayoral Musings