- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sharing skin color with their principal makes life better for many American teachers, according to a major new study from the University of Missouri.

The report, which surveyed more than 37,000 teachers and principals from 7,200 schools across the country, found that black teachers who work for a black principal are generally happier with their jobs, are less likely to leave and say they receive more support, encouragement and recognition from their superiors.

While base salaries are usually negotiated and remain largely equal across racial groups, the study found that black teachers are more likely to receive “supplemental pay,” such as extra money for coaching the high school basketball team, if the principal also is black.

“The takeaway is … people are more comfortable with people who look like themselves,” said Lael Keiser, an associate professor in the university’s Truman School of Public Affairs and co-author of the report.

“This highlights the need for principals to know that they have to work especially hard to communicate when they’re working with teachers who are not similar to them. I highly doubt that there are principals out there who are purposely doing this. Some of it is subconscious,” she said.

White principals appear more likely to pick teachers of their own race for coaching jobs or as advisers for school clubs, which leads to more money in supplemental pay, the report states. But in schools with black principals, “the supplemental salary rates were roughly the same,” regardless of a teacher’s race.

The study, its authors argue, should have “policy implications” for the nation’s public education system.

“We hope these findings could provide justification for policymakers to undertake programs targeted at increasing the flow of minority teachers into the principal pipeline,” Ms. Keiser said.

Previous research, she added, has shown that minority teachers can improve the educational experiences of minority students, mainly because some youngsters are simply more comfortable and feel they have more freedom to express their ideas with a teacher who looks like them.

The same dynamic appears to be true in the teacher/principal relationship, and a minority teacher in a largely white school often becomes “detached” and feels like less a part of the school family, said Judith Richardson, a former principal and director of diversity, equity and urban initiatives at the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

“It’s so important that a staff understands the culture” of the community they’re working in, she said Thursday. “You’ve got to look at what the demographics of the community are.”

Subconscious or not, Ms. Richardson said racial favoritism by a principal, black or white, damages the school’s reputation and can cause more serious problems, like high teacher turnover rates, and could create a tense classroom environment that hinders students’ ability to learn.

“The principal is a 24-hour role model for both staff and students,” she said. “There are children and adults who look to them.”

While much of the responsibility falls on a principal as the head of a school, Ms. Richardson said some teachers and district employees inject race into situations where it may have played no role whatsoever. If a white principal picks a white teacher to serve as adviser of the history club, for example, a black teacher may come to the conclusion that skin color was the biggest contributing factor.

That type of thinking, she said, can be dangerous.

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