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Diversity Advocates Voice Caution on Community College Study

Although a new study has found that underrepresented community college students fare better when placed in classrooms with an instructor of their ethnic background, diversity leaders warn that the study is too limited in scope to draw any solid conclusions.

“Interesting” was the furthest that two diversity experts would go in describing the study, titled “A Community College Instructor Like Me: Race and Ethnicity Interactions in the Classroom.” The study was conducted by three economics professors affiliated with the Cambridge, Mass.-based National Bureau of Economic Research.

Using administrative data described as “detailed demographic information on instructors as well as students from one of the largest and most ethnically diverse community colleges in the United States, this study is the first to test whether minority instructors have a positive effect on the academic achievement of minority students at the college level,” the study states.

“We find that the minority achievement gap is smaller in classes taken with underrepresented minority instructors with respect to various course outcomes,” wrote the researchers, economics professors Robert Fairlie, of the University of California, Santa Cruz; Florian Hoffmann, of the University of British Columbia; and Philip Oreopoulos, of the University of Toronto.

While minority students are generally more likely to drop a course, less likely to pass a course, and less likely to earn a B-grade or better, these gaps decrease by 2.9 percentage points, 2.8 percentage points, and 3.2 percentage points, respectively, when minority students are assigned to an instructor of similar minority type, the study states.

“These effects are large,” the study says, “representing roughly half of the total gaps in the outcomes between non-minority and minority students in our data.”

Black students particularly benefit from being taught by Black instructors, the study found, but not necessarily because of anything the instructors are doing pedagogically.

“We conclude that these results likely occur from students reacting to teachers rather than the other way around,” the study says.

“First, teacher minority status strongly affects students’ early dropout decisions, even before teachers have had the opportunity to grade,” the study explains. “Second, our results are almost entirely driven by younger, not older students,” it continues. “If instructors react to students’ minority status, we would expect to see effects for both young and old.

“This suggests that young students are particularly susceptible to role-model effects.”

However, two leading diversity experts cautioned against investing too much stock in the study’s findings, particularly because the study only examined student outcomes at De Anza College, a San Francisco Bay area school with an average total annual enrollment of 22,000 students, as opposed to a sampling of community colleges in different regions.

“This study has some interesting findings on the importance of faculty of color,”

said Dr. Robert Teranishi, Associate Professor of Higher Education at New York University.

“I have mainly seen qualitative evidence for the important role of faculty of color in the development and outcomes of students of color, so this quantitative research yields some additional perspectives.”

He added, though, that there are areas that need to be explored further.

“For example, what the findings may be pointing to are differences in what classes are being taught by faculty of color versus White faculty,” Teranishi said, adding that faculty of color are more likely to teach humanities and social sciences.

“This should be looked at more carefully,” he said. “It would also be important to expand this research to include more campuses since this study only involved one institution.”

Kevin A. Christian, Senior Program Associate for Diversity, Inclusion and Equity at the American Association of Community Colleges, voiced similar thoughts.

“As an association, we are not broadly aware of research on this topic, but these are interesting findings, and the data suggest that further exploration of this topic would be interesting,” Christian said. “There is a lot of diversity in learning styles for students and different students do have different outcomes based on different educational experiences, but, given the limited size of this study, more information would need to be gathered before one would want to generate policy for delivering instruction.”

He added that he has seen research on culturally responsive pedagogy that shows, if a professor of any color is trained properly, he or can she can teach any type of student.

The authors of the study seemed keenly aware of the study’s limitations themselves, as well as the challenges that lie ahead in implementing any sort of policy-based on the findings.

“Our results suggest that the academic achievement gap between White and underrepresented minority college students would decrease by hiring more minority instructors,” the researchers concluded. “However, the desirability of this policy is complicated by the finding that students appear to react positively when matched to instructors of a similar race or ethnicity but negatively when not.”

“A more detailed understanding of heterogeneous effects from instructor assignment, therefore, is needed before drawing recommendations for improving overall outcomes,” the study says. “The topic is ripe for further research.”

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