Early results from a new study suggests matching black students to at least one black teacher in elementary school increases their high school graduation rates and intent to go to college.

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It’s no secret that public schools in Washington state employ few teachers who are black, Asian or Latino.

A recent report from UW’s College of Education, for example, found that despite an increasingly diverse student population, 90 percent of the state’s 60,000 teachers are white.

Getting a more diverse set of teachers in the classroom would take years, but a new study suggests school districts can make better use of the teachers of color they already have.

In a working paper released this year, a team of researchers — from American University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Davis — found that low-income, male students who are black were 39 percent less likely to drop out of high school if they had at least one black teacher in grades 3-5.

“This is a big deal and a big number,” said co-author Seth Gershenson, an assistant professor of public policy at American University.

The researchers studied about 105,000 black students in North Carolina. Among the girls, they didn’t find a signficant change in dropout rates. But Gershenson said that’s likely because female students tend to graduate at higher rates in general.

The researchers did find that black girls and boys who had at least one black teacher in grades 3-5 had a stronger interest in attending college after graduation.

More interesting to Gershenson, however, was the study’s finding that having two black teachers in those grades didn’t have a bigger impact than having just one.

“That’s really important given the shortage” of teacher diversity, he said.

“It means that literally … you don’t need three black teachers in three consecutive grades,” Gershenson said. “Just having one has this impact.”

The new study was prompted by earlier research in which Gershenson and co-author Nicholas Papageorge, of Johns Hopkins University, found teachers of different backgrounds have vastly different expectations of their students — and that their expectations matter.

Gershenson’s new research suggests districts could help more black male students by matching them with at least one black teacher in elementary school.

He acknowledges it would be difficult — at least politically — to assign students to teachers based on race.

“I don’t know if anyone has the answer just yet,” he said. “I hope our paper gets people talking and thinking about creative ways to compromise between those trade-offs.”