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The Right Role Model

By Julie Scharper
Nick Papageorge
Nick Papageorge is an economist who teaches in the Johns Hopkins University Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

As a Teach for America instructor in the early 2000s, Nick Papageorge was struck by the immense potential of his fourth- and fifth-grade students. They were bright, creative, and engaged in their studies. But the statistics were clear. Poor African-American students, such as those Papageorge taught, were less likely to complete high school or college than children from higher-income families. “I was always puzzled,” Papageorge says today. “How are we wasting this potential?”

Now a Johns Hopkins assistant professor of economics, Papageorge delves into the roots of these educational disparities. While it might sound surprising that he is studying education, there’s a long tradition of economists applying their theories of investing and decision making to other fields, Papageorge says. “We know how to use big data sets to tease out causal relationships.”

Papageorge has identified one factor that helps black students gain an edge in pursuing their education: having a black teacher. Poor black students who have at least one black elementary school teacher are significantly more likely to graduate from high school and make plans for college, according to a study Papageorge and three other researchers recently published as an Institute of Labor Economics Discussion Paper.

The team analyzed data on 100,000 African-American public school children from urban, suburban, and rural areas in North Carolina who started third grade in the early 2000s. They focused on two measures—whether the students graduated from high school and whether they planned to go to college. They found that low-income black students who had a black teacher in third, fourth, or fifth grade were 29 percent more likely to finish high school than those who did not. Black students from low-income families were also more likely to say they were interested in going to college if they had been taught by an African-American teacher.

The effects were even more pronounced for persistently poor African-American boys, those who qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch throughout elementary school. Having a black teacher for one of those years increased their chance of graduating by 39 percent. It also made them 29 percent more likely to express a desire to go to college.

Papageorge and his team also combed through data from black public school students in Tennessee in the 1980s. Those who had a black teacher for at least one year between kindergarten and third grade were 15 percent more likely to graduate from high school and 10 percent more likely to take a college entrance exam.

Spending more than a year with a black teacher didn’t have additional significant effects on the black students. It appeared that just one black teacher was all that was needed to catapult a student to academic success.

It’s not clear why having a black teacher helped the students, Papageorge says. One possibility is that these teachers were more likely to believe in their black students. His earlier research had shown that black teachers tend to have higher expectations for black students than white teachers do. White teachers tend to expect less from their black students than from students of other races, he says.

Another possible explanation, Papageorge says, is what he calls the “role model effect.” Spending a year with a college educated black professional might inspire students. “If I’m a young, low-income, economically disadvantaged boy, maybe I just don’t know anyone who looks like me and has a college degree,” he says. “And then you put me with a [college-educated black teacher] for a year, and that shifts, and I realize that people who look like me do go to college.”

Papageorge and his colleagues hope to launch more studies to examine these effects and hunt for causes. They would like to look at the effect of having a black teacher during the middle and high school years. They’re also interested in seeing whether the teacher’s socioeconomic status plays a role.

Papageorge is also launching a project with Johns Hopkins sociologist and education expert Stefanie DeLuca to understand why even high-achieving black students in Baltimore often don’t complete college. DeLuca’s 2016 book, Coming of Age in the Other America, explored the lives of children who lived in Baltimore public housing projects in the 1980s and 1990s.

“There’s a huge margin when you’re talking about race there. Lots more black students get a certificate or an associate’s degree. We tend to lump them with college graduates, but their life trajectories are more like those of high school graduates,” Papageorge says. “It’s an alarming story. We’re throwing away human capital.”

Illustration above by Daniel Fishel; Portrait to the left by Caroline Andrieu
Black students, particularly boys, who had a black teacher between kindergarten and third grade are more likely to graduate from high school and take their college entrance exams.

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