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.