A new study analyzing teen pregnancy rates in Georgia finds that the presence of more Black teachers can decrease the rate of teen pregnancies among Black girls.
Teen pregnancy rates in the United States have been steadily declining over the past decade, from 117 pregnancies per 1,000 people between the ages of 15 and 19 in 1990, to 68 per 1,000 in 2008 (the last year for which such data is available). This represents a 42 percent decline. Though Black young women have seen an even bigger decline—from 224 pregnancies per 1,000 young women, to 117 per 1,000—their pregnancy rate is still nearly three times higher than that of white teens.
Researchers believed that the presence of more Black teachers in schools could help lower the pregnancy rate among this group of students. They based their hypothesis on previous research on representative bureaucracy, which has found that when agencies that serve women and minorities employ individuals from these groups in higher numbers, their clients benefit. In a school, the idea would be that the presence of more Black teachers could change the environment so more attention is paid to the needs of minority students, and Black teachers could serve as both mentors and role models for Black students.
To test the hypothesis, the researchers analyzed data from Georgia public schools and pregnancy rates by county from 2002 to 2006. Specifically, they looked at the number of teachers by race and gender, as well as teen pregnancy rates by race and socioeconomic status.
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As expected, increased representation of Black teachers was correlated with a decrease in teen pregnancy rates among Black teens. The decrease was small but significant; the researchers calculated that a 10 percent increase in Black teachers would lead to approximately six fewer pregnancies in the district. While this might not seem like much, the researchers explain that the results are not linear, and the benefits can increase quickly. “[O]nce a district reaches a threshold level of 20–29 percent African-American teachers, we observe a significant decrease in African-American teen pregnancy rates (18.8 fewer pregnancies per 1,000),” the researchers noted.
The language in the study refers to teen pregnancies generally, rather than specifying that the researchers are interested in reducing unintended teen pregnancies. But it’s worth noting that intended pregnancies among teens stem from the same root issues as unintended teen pregnancies—like poverty and lack of opportunity—and the goal here seems to be to change these circumstances, which would have the effect of reducing teen pregnancy rates overall.
The researchers also looked at teen pregnancy rates among white students and found that they are not affected by the percentage of white teachers in a school district. An increase in the percentage of Black teachers also did not have an impact on teen pregnancy rates among white young women.
Though the analysis could not explain exactly what is behind the numbers, the researchers also conducted interviews with teachers. They noted:
Our interviews indicate that African-American teachers serve as mentors, take a special interest in the behaviors and decisions of African-American students, and actively try to have an influence on them. These teachers talk candidly with students about sexual behavior and offer valuable advice.
Black teachers also serve as role models to these students, which the authors believe can encourage students to make healthy decisions. Finally, the authors note that the presence of more Black teachers changes both the policies and culture of a school, and can make all teachers and administrators more sensitive to the issue of teen pregnancy in the Black community.