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Black Students Taught by Black Teachers Have Fewer SPED Referrals


As teachers, we all strive to create an environment that fosters fair opportunities for all students. In our schools today, diversity among students is common, yet the demographics of certain classrooms, especially special education (SPED) classrooms, are concerning. White teachers often dominate schools, making us wonder why special education classes are sometimes the most racially diverse. How does this discrepancy arise? Is it mere coincidence, or are there underlying biases and systemic structures influencing which students are referred to these programs? What if the racial makeup of our teaching staffs could influence student success more than we realized? Recent findings from a study in North Carolina provide some compelling insights into these questions.

Having a Black teacher reduces special education referrals for Black students.

This research conducted by Cassandra M.D. Hart and Constance A. Lindsay explores the impact of teacher-student racial congruence on the identification of Black students for discretionary educational services, specifically gifted and special education programs. Are there underlying biases influencing which students are referred to these programs? Here’s what their research has to say:

Key findings from Hart and Lindsay (2024)

  • Reduction in special education referrals for Black students: The study demonstrates that Black students matched with Black teachers are significantly less likely to receive referrals to special education compared to their peers with teachers of other races. This effect is especially pronounced among economically disadvantaged Black boys.
  • Impact on disability categories with high discretion: The findings highlight a stronger relationship for disabilities that have a more discretionary component in their identification, such as specific learning disabilities. This suggests that the teacher’s race can play a critical role in the decision-making process for referrals, potentially reducing subjective bias in identification.
  • No impact on gifted program identification: Black teachers did not increase the likelihood of identifying Black students for gifted programs. This indicates that teacher-student race may be more significant in preventing unwarranted SPED referrals than in enhancing access to gifted education.
  • Variability based on student characteristics: The study examined how Black teachers’ effects varied among students with different characteristics, such as economic disadvantage and gender. Economically disadvantaged Black boys experienced the most significant reduction in special education referrals, underscoring the importance of considering student background in educational strategies.

Can we trust this research?

Not all research measures up equally! Here’s what our We Are Teachers “Malarkey Odometer” says when it comes to this publication based on four key factors.

  • Peer-reviewed? Yes! While these data come from 2007 through 2013, this manuscript likely went through many rounds of the peer-review process.
  • Sample size: Their sample size is huge! They have an n = 408,959 for their gifted and talented portion of the study and an n = 546,433 for the SPED portion. This study has huge statistical power!
  • Researchers’ credentials: Hart and Lindsay have amassed over 6,000 citations in the academic field, even though they are considered fairly new academics. This manuscript was published in the high-impact American Educational Research Journal, a dream for any researcher.
  • Methodology: This is a “semi”-causal study. Since random assignment based on race is unethical, researchers employed a “quasi-experimental” approach to study outcomes. This means they looked for naturally occurring situations that approximate a controlled experiment. They also used data from North Carolina public schools, where there is a significant, but varying, presence of Black teachers. With all methodology considered, these researchers utilized the strongest tools they could in this situation.

What does this mean for teachers?

The findings suggest that the race of the person who stands in front of the classroom can significantly impact the educational trajectory of Black students. But how can teachers apply these findings?

  • Advocate for diversity: Promote and support initiatives in your school to hire and retain Black educators, or advocate for a Grow Your Own program to start in your district. A diverse teaching staff provides crucial role models and enhances cultural competence within the school community.
  • Reflect on bias: All educators should engage in self-reflection to identify and address their own biases in student interactions and evaluations. Participate in professional development opportunities focused on cultural competency and anti-racist teaching practices to minimize biased decisions.
  • Engage in policy changes: Join efforts to advocate for policies that advance racial equity in teacher recruitment, hiring practices, and ongoing professional development. Encourage your school district to implement standards that prioritize diversity and inclusion.
  • Dr. Constance Lindsay told We Are Teachers: “All teachers can benefit from having diverse colleagues in service of improving student outcomes, particularly novice teachers.”

As educators, our role extends beyond academics: We also shape an equitable and inclusive educational environment. Hart and Lindsay’s (2024) findings highlight that our teaching staffs’ composition profoundly influences student outcomes and opportunities. I know it’s easy to think, “Well, it’s not my responsibility to change the diversity of the teacher workforce,” but it is your responsibility to check your bias. By reflecting, advocating systemic changes, and embracing diversity, we make educational equity a reality, not an aspiration. Let’s be the educators who not only wonder about change but also enact it, recognizing and nurturing every child’s potential.

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