Young children who are taught by a teacher of the same ethnicity develop better learning and problem-solving skills by the age of seven, according to new research.
The effect was more pronounced among black and Latino children, the findings — which looked at more than 18,000 US students — showed.
Posted in Early Education and Development, the study revealed that if the children’s ethnicity is shared with that of their teachers, the children are more likely to go on to develop better working memory. This is the ability to hold and process information in your mind—a skill essential for learning and problem solving.
“Diversifying the teacher workforce represents a key step toward promoting greater equity in schools in the United States,” says lead author Professor Michael Gottfried of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.
“Our results add to the substantial evidence that ethnic-racial representation among American teachers matters, highlighting a key way in which students’ developmental skills are developed in schools. This is a critical step forward as students’ working memory, key component of executive functioning, has been consistently linked to improvements in student achievement, and is more malleable in early childhood.”
It has been known for some time that being taught by a teacher from the same ethnoracial background can improve a student’s academic achievement, such as math and reading test scores. However, this study is one of the first to investigate the effect of teacher/student ethnoracial matching on children younger than nine years of age and examine how it affects not only academic achievement, but also development.
The research analyzed data from 18,170 children who participated in the 2011 US Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten. This study followed a representative sample of children from the US population who were in kindergarten (preschoolers ages 3 to 6 ) in 2011. The study analyzed information on these children when they were in kindergarten through the end of first grade (ages 6 to 7).
Specifically, the research looked at the effect of matching the race/ethnicity of Asian, Black, Latino, and white teachers and students on two measures of brain power known as “executive function” that help children behave toward a goal. One measure was working memory, the ability to hold and process information in the mind. The other was so-called cognitive flexibility, the ability to shift our attention and perspectives.
To measure cognitive flexibility, the researchers tested children’s ability to switch between thinking about different concepts. This was done through a task in which they had to sort the cards by shape, color and outline. Working memory was assessed by the researchers by asking the children to repeat a dictated sequence of numbers, with an additional digit added to the sequence each time the child correctly remembered the previous sequence. The study also examined the effect of student-teacher race/ethnicity matching on children’s reading and math scores. All groups were compared with a control group taught by a teacher from a different ethnoracial background.
The findings showed that when students have an ethnic-racial match with their teacher, their reading and math scores were higher. The effect size was larger among black and Latinx students. In conjunction with this, working memory also improved in Black and Latino children matched with a teacher of the same race/ethnicity. However, ethnoracial matching appeared to have no effect on cognitive flexibility.
These findings held true regardless of differences in teaching patterns, whether children were taught for one or two years by a teacher of the same nationality, and whether or not the child attended a public or private school.
The authors say that while the effect size is relatively small, when scaled to the population level and over many years of schooling, the results could make a big difference.
There is growing interest in executive function skills because they can predict both robust human development and academic success. Previous research has also shown that there are marked differences in executive function based on race/ethnicity and wealth levels. One study found that on average, black and Latina children start kindergarten significantly behind their white peers in terms of working memory and cognitive flexibility.
Perhaps Latinx and Black teachers are in a better position to support their students’ growth, the study authors suggest. If this is the case, then fostering teacher/student ethnoracial matches could help reverse the disparities seen in executive functioning in younger children.
“Researchers have found that teachers of color are more likely to provide pedagogical pedagogy, and when they do, they are better able to connect with students whose cultures and experiences are often not reflected in typical school curricula and approaches,” adds Dr. Gottfried . .
Other factors at play could be students responding to having a role model at the front of the classroom of their own race/ethnicity or even unconscious teacher bias.
“What a teacher believes about certain groups of students can change how they deliver instruction, interact with parents, and grade writing, for example. This perspective could happen with a mismatched teacher who doesn’t accurately identify skills or developmental level of a student of color and therefore does not provide appropriate levels of scaffolded instruction, which has been linked to improvements in executive functions in addition to academic achievement,” says Dr. Gottfried.
Future research should try to identify the reasons why the ethnoracial matching of students and teachers has this positive effect on achievement and development, the authors say.
Ethnic student-teacher matching in the early grades: Benefits for executive function skills?, Early Education and Development (2023). DOI: 10.1080/10409289.2023.2172674
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Reference: Young children develop better learning skills when taught by same-ethnicity teachers, US study suggests (2023, March 17) Retrieved March 17, 2023, from https://phys.org/news/2023-03-young- children-skills-teachers-teach.html
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