Bridging the Gap?

Despite efforts to counter it, the achievement gap between white and minority students remains remarkably stubborn. The usual run-down of reasons for this disparity are well known. Lower socioeconomic backgrounds of minority kids, less access to early childhood education, under-resourced and violent schools,  etc. What gets discussed less often is the effect of self-concept and the effect of stereotype threat on performance.

We have touched on this briefly before and debated the power of Obama as an inspirational figure in improving the scores of  African-American adult test-takers.

Educators and policy makers, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, have said in recent days that they hope President Obama’s example as a model student could inspire millions of American students, especially blacks, to higher academic performance.

Now researchers have documented what they call an Obama effect, showing that a performance gap between African-Americans and whites on a 20-question test administered before Mr. Obama’s nomination all but disappeared when the exam was administered after his acceptance speech and again after the presidential election.

The inspiring role model that Mr. Obama projected helped blacks overcome anxieties about racial stereotypes that had been shown, in earlier research, to lower the test-taking proficiency of African-Americans, the researchers conclude in a report summarizing their results.

Doubtless, Obama has positively affected the self-concept of many African-Americans but is he the solution for achievement gap woes? Not so fast. The results haven’t been replicated or shown to have resilience on retest. In addition to this, it’s worth noting that it’s just as easy to focus on the differences between yourself and an aspirational figure as it is to note the similarities. Using a role model to under-pin your self-concept may result in disappointment should they do something that doesn’t fit into your pedestalized idea of them.

But what if there were a way to encourage self-affirming ideas and feelings that were internally generated? Geoffery L. Cohen has attempted to do just that in his research discussed here.

The researchers, led by Geoffrey L. Cohen, a social psychologist at the University of Colorado, had seventh graders in suburban Connecticut schools do the assignment three to five times through that school year. It asked them to choose from a list values that were most important to them — including athletic ability, sense of humor, creativity and being smart — and to write why those values were so important. The students were randomly assigned, within classes, to do the exercise or a control assignment that was not focused on their values.

In previous studies, researchers had found that such exercises reduced stress and the fear of failure in some students. By the end of eighth grade, among black students who were struggling, those who had expressed in writing their most important values had an average G.P.A. that was 0.4 points higher than those who had not.

What’s interesting is that the results showed no fadeout – students who had completed the assignments were tracked through the end of 8th grade and retained the GPA boost. They were also far less likely to repeat a grade or require remediation.  It is possible that the writing assigments supported positive identity formation thus decreasing stress and performance anxiety.

However, in discussing the results here and here, Cohen is careful to note that such interventions are not intended as a cure-all, but are to be offered as a part of other services that support educational achievement. The setting of the study is also crucial. The 7th and 8th graders in question were attending well integrated schools in the Connecticut suburbs.  He states that the exercise may not have the same effect in another setting, such as an all-black urban school or with all poor white students.

Despite the encouraging results, questions remain. For example, despite the exercise not mentioning race white students who were struggling did not reap any benefits from completing the assignment. Why? Also, will the positive results be retained into high school? The No Child Left Behind law and the programs attached to it focus primarily on grades 3 through 8. A means to affectively address the achievement gap between black and white high schoolers  — in 2008 it stood at nearly 30 points in both math and reading, which is about 2-3 years of school — has yet to be identified.

UPDATE: We wanted to link to this great episode of RadioLab, in which a study found how subtle allusions to stereotype before a standardized test — women and math, blacks and I.Q. — had surprising effects on how students scored.

10 thoughts on “Bridging the Gap?

  1. shani-o May 13, 2009 at 2:30 pm Reply

    Past research has already demonstrated that people experience stress in situations where they know they can be stereotyped, Cohen said.

    “We all belong to social groups that are stereotyped,” Cohen said. “For whites, it’s relevant to sports but not academically. But for African- Americans and Latino Americans, it threatens their academic ability.”

    I really wonder what effect Cohen’s experiment would have in all-black, inner-city schools. Would it have no effect, because those black kids aren’t comparing themselves negatively to white kids (because there aren’t any white kids around)? Or would it be even more pronounced, because they might just need that boost, and time to be introspective? Obviously there’s no way to know unless it gets conducted in that forum.

    By the way, the Obama Effect was also discussed on a RadioLab podcast:

  2. Jeremy May 13, 2009 at 3:30 pm Reply

    On a related topic, this video presents some sobering footage.

    They re-visit the study from the 1940s that presented black children with two dolls (one black and one white), and then asked them a series of questions about the dolls – like, “Which doll is prettier?”

    Fascinating stuff here about racial identity, racial stereotypes, and internalized self-hate. It’s definitely worth checking out.

  3. t.o.a n. May 14, 2009 at 8:08 am Reply

    Shani-O: Once again the reply is not working for me. I must be doing something wrong. Anyway …

    I don’t think that the ideas of stereotype threat and self concept are limited to the classroom. I think the ideas and images are all around us, so much so that we do not even take note. Images on the news, in videos, movies, even books can reinforce these ideas. So my guess would be that these positive self-affirming ideas would have a positive affect on most, if not all, young people of color, in my opinion.

    I have been doing a lot of reading on the achievement gap in trying to understand what I can do to ensure that it has as minimal an affect on my children as possible. In doing so I have found it very interesting that No Child Left Behind does not work now in its current form and I, quite frankly, cannot see it working in the future unless it is radically changed. Additionally, even in students of color with higher socioeconomic backgrounds, better educated parents and access to “better” schools that achievement gap still persists. This tells me that other factors such as stereotype threat, self concept, and parental involvement (parents being able to navigate the education system and advocate for their children) are at play to a larger extent than many would believe.

    • shani-o May 14, 2009 at 1:28 pm Reply

      I guess what I’m suspicious about is that the affirmations had no effect on white kids. White kids seemed to be relatively better adjusted than the black kids in the experiment, which is why the messaging didn’t help them.

      In an environment where everyone around to you is similar in income and race, the achievement issues aren’t about feeling relatively bad about yourself — they’re more about a lack of resources (be it parental advocation or crappy school books). That’s why I’m not convinced that affirmation of values is necessarily going to do any good outside of affluent, integrated schools.

      • young_ May 14, 2009 at 5:45 pm Reply

        Are there any academic psychologists on this list? I’m still a little confused about stereotype threat and its supposed causes. My understanding, based on some of the Claude Steele articles I’ve read, is that it actually does not matter whether the young person affected believes in the stereotype at all (i.e. it’s not just a question of self-confidence or self-hatred or whatever) but that just them being aware of the existence of the stereotypes makes tests extra stressful and difficult, thus producing a self-fulfilling prophecy of underachievement. Am I right about this?

        • universeexpanding May 14, 2009 at 6:19 pm Reply

          I’m a little unclear – what “list” are you talking about? And what do you mean by “academic psychologist”?

          The findings on stereotype threat draw chiefly from the research of Steele and Aronson who are respected psychologists and this study was conducted by Geoffery Cohen who is also also a well-known psychologist who has quite a body of work concerning priming. You are right in saying that stereotype threat occurs due to simple knowledge of the existence of a stereotype – belief in it is neither here nor there. ( This was all in the wiki link btw. )

          Is that what you were asking?

  4. belleisa May 14, 2009 at 3:03 pm Reply

    “More worrisome, it could be that Obama—law school prof, constitutional scholar, first black president—is seen as “too innately talented to serve as a role model for the typical African-American student,” says Aronson. “The most potent role model is someone who is seen as having worked really hard to succeed,” says Aronson. “Maybe Obama’s abilities are so stellar that typical students can’t identify with him. Either we have to change our theory of how role models work, or accept that not every black student is going to be inspired by Obama” to achieve greater academic success.”

    This is a quote from an article, at Newsweek, linked to readers from TNC’s site on the Atlantic. It’s so stupid. I know very little about education, or reform , or the achievement gap debate. I was curious on your thougts.

    • young_ May 14, 2009 at 5:39 pm Reply

      I don’t really disagree with that quote at all… Obama will undoubtedly inspire many, many young people but I don’t doubt that there waill also be many who look at him, his background and his story and just don’t relate at all.

    • universeexpanding May 14, 2009 at 6:22 pm Reply

      I don’t think the quote is off base. It gets at an idea I mentioned in the post – you can just as easily notice all the ways you are NOT like an aspirational figure. Which isn’t to say that role models are useless or that Obama doesn’t work as one – that would be extreme. But let’s imagine a kid who is struggling in school and has been failing for years, goes to a shitty school and doesn’t have much resources in the way of services or people who are trying to help him. He could say “Obama is great! And he looks like me! I can be great too! I’m gonna work really hard no matter what!”…or he could just as easily say “My life is nothing like his…I’m up against way too much. I’ll never be like him.”

  5. Frank Simpkins October 26, 2009 at 2:13 pm Reply

    Check out the book “Between the Rhetoric and Reality”,’Dorrance Publishing’:9-2009. It may possibly hold the clue towards effectively decreasing the horrendous reading failure within our inner-city public school systems, of our Black ,disavantaged students.

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