Primary Sources: Does Having Teachers of Their Own Race Help Students Avoid Pregnancy?

African-American teacher and student smiling.

"Going Beyond Reading, Writing and Arithmetic: The Effects of Teacher Representation on Teen Pregnancy Rates" (abstract). Danielle N. Atkins and Vicky M. Wilkins. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, Vol. 23, No. 4 (October 2013).

What it’s about: Researchers Danielle N. Atkins and Vicky M. Wilkins wanted to know whether the presence of minority and female teachers in high schools lowers teen pregnancy rates among African-American youth. To test their hypothesis, Atkins and Wilkins surveyed high-school teachers and a school district administrator from Georgia public schools. The researchers also analyzed teen pregnancy rates from the Georgia Department of Community Health, educational outcomes data from the National Center for Education Statistics, and unemployment rates from a census gathered over four years.

Why read it: Researchers are continuing to tease out the various factors that influence whether or not teens get pregnant and have children too young, particularly among African American, Latino, and other minority youth, who have higher rates of pregnancy than their white peers. Understanding how cultural diversity in schools (and out of schools) affects teen's health outcomes, including pregnancy rates, can help schools and youth-serving organizations make smart staffing and curriculum decisions.

Biggest takeaways for family and youth workers: In their interviews with teachers and administrators, Atkins and Wilkins found that greater representation of African-Americans among teachers, both male and female, had a positive impact on African-American students. By comparison, the presence of white teachers did not have a significant effect on white youths' teen pregnancy rates. Combining the interviews with other teen pregnancy data, the researchers also observed that at schools where at least 20 percent of the staff were African American, significantly fewer African American teens became pregnant.

The researchers emphasize that this correlation should not be confused with a causal relationship. Still, they suggest some of the factors that contribute to the correlation may be that the African American teachers tended to

  • serve as mentors;
  • take a special interest in the behaviors and decisions of African-American students;
  • talk candidly with students about sexual behavior; and
  • offer advice to students.

Atkins and Wilkins write, “African-American teachers serve as role models for African-American students, which can encourage students to make healthy decisions regarding sexual activity.”

They also found that the positive impact of minority staff extended to other staff as well. Teachers and administrators from other demographic groups became more aware of the issue of teen pregnancy in the African-American community when they had colleagues from that community.

More than influencing students and each other, the authors write, African American teachers' presence often had an impact on the priorities and policies of the school as a whole. This concept could be applied in other youth-serving environments. For example, youth-serving agencies could consider looking at how well their staff reflect client demographics and taking steps to ensure that diverse ethnicities are represented on staff and in program planning and policy decisions.

The authors wanted to see if there was a similar correlation for Latino students and teachers. But there were too few Latino staff members in Georgia schools for Atkins and Wilkins to study the relationship.

Additional references: Look for more articles about teen pregnancy and cultural competence in NCFY’s research library.

Learn more about how non-parental adults can be positive role models for adolescents in the 2009 study “Negative adult influences and the protective effects of role models: A study with urban adolescents.”

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children and Families.

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