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Schools that have more minority teachers have reduced minority teen pregnancy rates.

That’s the finding of a new study done by Danielle Atkins, assistant professor of political science. Atkins, who began working at UT this fall, collaborated on the project with Vicky Wilkins, an associate professor of public administration and policy at the University of Georgia. Atkins earned her doctorate from Georgia.

The study, titled “Going Beyond Reading, Writing and Arithmetic: The Effects of Teacher Representation on Teen Pregnancy Rates,” has been published in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory. (There is open access to the study until January 18, 2014.)

The United States has the highest rate of teen pregnancy among fully industrialized countries—nearly twice that of Great Britain, four times that of France and Germany, and more than ten times that of Japan.

“Given the seriousness of the teen pregnancy problem in our country it is important to identify strategies to combat it,” the researchers wrote in their study. “This is especially true for the African American population, which has the highest rate of teen pregnancy among all groups. Increasing the representation of African American teachers, both male and female, appears to have a positive impact on African American students … Given this, schools should consider how their hiring decisions might be related to the reproductive health of their students.”

The study looked at public schools in Georgia and county-level teen pregnancy data.

“There’s an argument that it might be necessary to have a certain percentage of minority teachers before you start to see it make a difference in the minority teen pregnancy rate,” Atkins said “We found that the tipping point was nearly 18 percent.”

The study looked at a variety of reasons why minority teachers have such an impact on teen pregnancy. They serve as role models, play a role in developing policies and programs, and serve as advisors and mentors.

To supplement their data, the researchers interviewed a sample of school employees—a school district administrator and eleven high-school teachers. Of the teachers, three were African American women, four were white women, and four were white men.

These discussions convinced the researchers that while any teacher can serve as a role model, African American students tend to seek out role models who look like them, particularly when they need advice on noneducational issues, the researchers said.

“All of the African American female teachers we spoke with shared example after example of both male and female African American students asking questions about relationship choices and decisions,” the study reports.

The researchers also found that minority teachers also may influence policy in a way that benefits minority students.

“The teachers we spoke with felt that they have a limited voice in formal policy but can make a significant difference through practice,” the study notes.

The researchers said conversations with students about the growing number of teen pregnancies at a school prompted one teacher to develop an after-school program for students.

In addition, the researchers said, African American teachers build relationships with African American students, which allow them to become trusted advisors and mentors.

“These teachers stressed that African American students are more comfortable with them because the students assume that African American teachers come from a similar background and that these teachers will understand them,” the researchers wrote. “Due to this, African American students, most often females but also males, trust these teachers and are comfortable having candid conversations about sex, birth control, STDs, and relationships, which can reduce the risk of teen pregnancy.”

Atkins’ areas of expertise include reproductive health policy, representative bureaucracy, and education policy.

C O N T A C T :

Amy Blakely (865-974-5034, ablakely@utk.edu)