Policymakers and educators alike are increasingly cognizant of the long-term consequences of student absenteeism and suspensions, which are particularly troubling given that absence and suspension rates are significantly higher among low-income and racial minority students. However, while credible evidence of the harm caused by primary school absenteeism is mounting, less is known about the schooling inputs and interventions that affect student attendance and behavior.
A new IZA discussion paper by Stephen B. Holt and Seth Gershenson, both of American University’s School of Public Affairs, provides new evidence on the classroom level determinants of students’ absences and suspensions by showing that being assigned an other-race teacher significantly increases student absences, the likelihood of being chronically absent, suspensions, and the likelihood of ever being suspended.
Parents and teachers influence students’ attendance
Building on past research, which shows that teachers have statistically significant, arguably causal effects on student absences that persist over time, the authors note that both parents and teachers directly influence primary school students’ attendance. Combined with insights from the theory of representative bureaucracy, this suggests that the racial match between teachers and their students will affect the relationships between teachers, students, and parents in ways that ultimately affect student absences.
A similar argument applies to student suspensions, with the additional caveat that teachers have some discretion in such decisions, which might also be shaped by student-teacher demographic match. The authors test these hypotheses using student-level longitudinal administrative data from North Carolina.
Identifying the causal relationship between student-teacher racial mismatch and student outcomes is complicated by the fact that neither nonwhite students nor nonwhite teachers are randomly distributed across U.S. schools and classrooms. Holt and Gershenson address these endogeneity concerns using a two-way classroom and student fixed effects identification strategy that has previously been used to investigate the causal effect of racial mismatch on community college students’ academic outcomes.
Intuitively, this research design simultaneously addresses two threats to validity. First, the classroom fixed effects ensure that students are compared to opposite-race peers who were in the same self-contained classroom and thus were exposed to the same class size, classroom environment, and teacher quality. This mitigates concerns that nonwhite students or teachers might be disproportionately likely to be in unobservably low-quality classrooms.
Second, the student fixed effects ensure that identification comes from within student changes in exposure to same-race teachers across school years. This mitigates concerns that unobserved factors jointly determine nonwhite students’ outcomes and their propensity to be assigned to an other-race teacher. Moreover, a “sorting on observables” test finds no evidence of endogenous sorting by student race, and thus similar sorting on unobservables is unlikely to bias the preferred two-way fixed effect estimates, lending further credibility to a causal interpretation of the main results.
Other-race teachers lead to 33% increase in suspensions of non-white boys
The analysis reveals that having a teacher of a different race, on average, leads to a modest, marginally significant increase in the number of absences in a given school year. However, this overall result masks two nuanced aspects of the racial mismatch effect. First, the effect is entirely driven by a significant increase in unexcused, as opposed to excused, absences. Intuitively, these are exactly the types of discretionary absences that are likely to be affected by classroom characteristics such as teacher race, lending further support to the causal interpretation.
Second, it may be that only a handful of students are on the margin of changing attendance habits in response to teacher race. For this reason, the authors also estimate the effect of racial mismatch on the probability that a student is chronically absent. Indeed, there is a statistically significant, 3 percent increase in the likelihood a student will be chronically absent when exposed to an other-race teacher. This effect is significantly larger for non-white boys, which is important given that chronic absenteeism explains a non-trivial fraction of the racial achievement gap.
Results for suspensions are qualitatively similar: having a teacher of a different race increases both the number of suspensions and the likelihood of being suspended at least once during the academic year. And once again, these effects are larger for boys, and particularly for non-white boys. For example, having an other-race teacher increases the probability that a nonwhite boy is ever suspended by more than one percentage point, which amounts to a 33 percent increase. This is staggering, given the initial disruption to a student’s learning and the longer-run consequences associated with being suspended.
Hiring a more representative teaching force could help
These results suggest that attendance and misbehavior are possible mechanisms through which student-teacher racial mismatch affects student achievement, while also highlighting the potential for representation in the classroom to affect other, non-tested educational outcomes that have both short- and long-run implications for educational and socioeconomic success. These results also highlight the potential benefits of hiring of a more representative teaching force, as the U.S. teaching force has become more diverse in recent years, yet as of 2012 44 percent of U.S. public school students were racial or ethnic minorities compared to only 17 percent of teachers.
Similarly, teacher training and professional development programs might further emphasize the importance and duty of all teachers to nurture positive, open relationships with all students and parents, regardless of their sociodemographic background, and proactively address attendance and behavioral concerns. Finally, school principals and administrators seeking to improve the academic performance and school engagement of disadvantaged and chronically absent students might use these results to inform the classroom assignments.
Download the complete paper (IZA DP No. 9554):