How the Lack of Racial Congruence between Students and Teachers Impacts Student Outcomes

The achievement gap in America is nothing new. Despite continuous calls for action, interventions, and policy changes, Black students consistently underperform when compared to their white peers. This is a problem across America and here in Franklin County, Ohio. During the 2016-2017 school year, 75% of Franklin County public schools received an F rating on the state report card for closing the gap (ODE, 2017). This means that these schools are not making sufficient progress in meeting the needs of their vulnerable students to close the gap that exists between students of varying incomes, backgrounds, and abilities. Many researchers have explored the issue of the achievement gap and found a wide range of influences from physical factors, such as birth weight and diet; to school factors, such as safety and class size; to societal factors, such as budget cuts and community opportunities. While there are many contributors to the achievement gap one less-discussed reason is the lack of racial congruence between students and teachers. The majority of teachers in American are White (Boser, 2014).

White teacher reading with young black boyIn Franklin County during the 2016-2017 school year, approximately 93% of the K-12 public teachers were reported to be White, while only 61.5% of the students in K-12 public schools are White (ODE, 2017). This stark difference leads to a lack of representation for students, limited cultural understanding, uneven discipline, and differing expectations. Taken together the combined effects of not having racial congruence between students and teachers creates clear differences in student outcomes. This report will highlight the powerful impact of racial incongruence, an issue that is critical for advancing the education of all students.

Discipline Gaps

In addition to emotional skills, teacher-student racial congruence also contributes to the racial disparity in discipline. Compared to White students, Black students are more likely to be severely disciplined (Okonofua & Eberhardt, 2015) and be expelled from school (Gilliam, 2005). One study conducted in 2016 illustrates this point (Blake et al., 2016). The study followed students in the state of Texas for five years starting in 7th grade. The authors found that the number of discipline incidents increased when there was less racial congruence and that this effect was more pronounced for Black male students. Further, they found that in comparison to White and Hispanic males, Black males were more likely to be disciplined between 7th and 12th grade. These results are consistent with the 2016-2017 discipline reports for public schools in Franklin County (ODE, 2017). On average, for every 100 students in Franklin County that receive disciplinary action, 45 are Black students while 16 are White. Nonetheless, it is important to interpret this information with caution since it is school-reported data which may not be completely accurate. All of this clearly shows that lack of racial congruence between students and teachers can greatly impact a student’s experience in school. Racial congruence between teachers and students might impair student adjustment which is essential for academic success. Socio-emotional skills, such as students’ abilities to regulate their attention, emotions, and behavior, play an important role in this adjustment. Previous studies have revealed that children from low socio-economic backgrounds display more emotional and behavioral problems than their counterparts from higher socio-economic backgrounds (Meuwissen & Englund, 2016). These results, however, mainly rely on teachers’ reports which are subject to racial bias. Studies suggest that minority groups, particularly Black students, receive less favorable ratings on emotional skills evaluations and are more likely to be labeled as “troublemakers” (Okonofua & Eberhardt, 2015). It has also been found that student evaluations differ when they are rated by teachers from different racial backgrounds, making the concern even greater. A study found that Black students are more likely to receive negative evaluations when they are rated by a White teacher rather than a Black teacher (Downer, Goble, Myers, & Pianta, 2016). This teacher-student racial incongruence effect has been demonstrated in studies with children of all ages.

Academic Achievement Gaps

Racial incongruence between teachers and students also impacts students’ academic achievement. There is evidence from educational research which suggests that differences in achievement are due, in part, to expectations about what the student can achieve academically (Dee, 2005; Douglas, Lewis, Douglas, Scott, & Garrison-Wade, 2008; Egalite, Kisida, & Winters, 2015; Gershenson, Holt, & Papageorge, 2016; Price, 2010; Oates, 2003). Expectations for student achievement impact both students’ and teachers’ behavior in several important ways.

White female teacher leading class instruction for a diverse group of non-white students

Teachers can have different expectations for students whose backgrounds are different from their own. In one national study comparing teachers’ expectations of their 10th-grade students’ ability to get four-year college degrees, researchers found that non-Black teachers had lower expectations for Black students than Black teachers did (Gershenson, Holt, & Papageorge, 2016). Teachers come to the classroom with their own biases and stereotypes, which create changes in their behavior toward particular groups of students, even in subtle and unintended ways. Teachers might call on certain students more frequently, provide different levels of constructive criticism, or give more positive feedback to students they believe have a higher potential for success (Oates, 2003). By treating students differently based on beliefs about their abilities, teachers create an environment that unequally supports student growth, resulting in an increase in the achievement gap.

Students may also alter their expectations for their own academic performance based on the racial incongruence with their teacher. When there is a racial mismatch between students and teachers, students are often concerned about behaving in a way that confirms negative stereotypes about their racial group (Steele, 1997). Having a teacher with a dissimilar racial background can increase students’ anxiety about being negatively judged, which results in lower academic performance. An increase in racial congruence and better training for all teachers in cultural competencies could reduce the students’ concerns, thereby increasing the performance of minoritized students (Dee, 2005, Douglas et al., 2008). Further, when students have a similar background to their teachers, students are more likely to view them as role models. Having racial congruence with their teachers increases students’ expectations for themselves and improves academic achievement (Egalite et al., 2015). One study done here in Ohio public universities showed Black students were more likely to persist in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors if they had a Black instructor in a STEM course (Price, 2010).


It is clear that the lack of racial congruence between students and teacher is problematic for non-White students. However, we want to be clear that in no way do we suggest or imply, that segregating students and teachers by race is the solution. In fact, studies have shown that having diverse student peers and creating cross-ethnic friendships is beneficial to student experiences in school (Graham, 2014). However, the studies above do suggest that the way that White teachers treat minority students in schools needs to change. All teachers need to be educated on the impact that their known and unknown stereotypes and biases have in the classroom. Further, increasing the diversity among teachers is important for supporting student success. We recommend that steps are taken to increase diversity among teachers to support teacher-student racial congruence by having teacher education programs actively recruit diverse students.  Schools and teacher training programs need to design and implement cultural competency training and educate teachers about the impact of their whiteness.


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