The achievement gap in academic performance between academically at-risk minorities and European American students has concerned educators, social scientists, policymakers, parents and students themselves for decades now. It’s a troubling fact that Latino Americans and African Americans, for example, earn lower grades on average than their European American peers, and are much more likely to drop out of high school.
Amid such sobering statistics, a bright spark has appeared in the form of research led by Geoffrey Cohen, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education and the Department of Psychology, and David Sherman, a professor at the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In an article published online Feb. 11 by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Cohen, Sherman and seven co-authors reveal that a simple intervention made with middle-school Latino American students can reduce the achievement gap significantly. What’s more, the positive effect can persist over time.
The matter comes down to overcoming the negative effects of “stereotype threat,” a phenomenon that researchers have identified and documented over the last two decades. What they have found — in numerous studies — is that the stress and uncertain sense of belonging that can stem from being a member of a negatively stereotyped group contributes substantially to poor academic performance of minority students as compared with white students.
Cohen and his colleagues have been looking for remedies to stereotype threat. In the first study described in the forthcoming JPSP article, the researchers devised well-timed “values-affirmation” classroom assignments given to both Latino American and white students as a part of the regular classroom curriculum. In one exercise, middle schoolers were given a list of values, such as “being good at art,” “being religious” and “having a sense of humor.” They were asked to pick the ones that were important to them and write a few sentences describing why. In a second exercise, they reflected in a more open-ended manner on things in their life that were important to them, and in a third they were guided to write a brief essay describing how the things they most consistently valued would be important to them in the coming spring.
Students completed several structured reflection exercises in their class throughout the year. The tasks were given at critical moments: the beginning of the school year, prior to tests and near the holiday season, a period of stress for many people with challenging home environments.
The control group was guided to write about values that were important to other people, but not themselves, or about other neutral topics.
The results were dramatic: Latino American students who completed the affirmation exercises had higher grades than those in the control group. Moreover, the effects of the affirmation intervention persisted for three years, remaining stable even as students transitioned from middle school to high school. The task had no significant effect on white students.
A second study looked at whether affirmation interventions could lessen the persistent threat to Latino Americans’ identity caused by the overt or subtle presence of racial and ethnic stereotypes and prejudices. Researchers administered values affirmation tasks and assessed students’ perceptions of daily adversity, identity threat, and feelings of academic fit several times over the school year as reflected in diary entries, and again measured their grades.
Surveys completed by children “in vivo” in the classroom indicated that Latino American students who had participated in the affirmation exercises were less likely to see daily stress and adversity as threatening to their identity and sense of belonging in school. They tended to be more philosophical about challenges they were experiencing, and were less likely to have their feelings of academic fit and motivation undermined. Once again, their grades were also consistently higher than those who did not participate in the affirmation assignments.
“Self-affirmation exercises provide adolescents from minority groups with a psychological ‘time out,’” said Cohen, who led the study with researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara; Columbia University; the University of Colorado; and the University of Chicago. In the midst of what for many minorities can feel like a hostile environment, such tasks provide reassurance about who they are and what’s really important in life at a critical time when they are engaged in identity crafting, he said.
As to why the interventions affected minorities but not white students, Cohen said, “Latino Americans are under a more consistent and chronic sense of psychological threat in the educational setting than their white counterparts on average. They constantly face negative stereotypes about their ability to succeed, so they are the ones to benefit the most from affirmations that help them to maintain a positive self-image.” Such affirmations not only help students feel more confident, but also allow them to reframe adversity and challenges as temporary phenomena rather than looming signs that they somehow don’t belong –– or worse, that they are fulfilling negative stereotypes about their inferiority.
The studies also underscore that underperformance is frequently not a function of individual inadequacy, but rather systemic failure. “A threatening environment can make smart kids less likely to show what they know, whereas a positive environment might pull out qualities that make the seemingly average student shine,” observes Cohen.
Cohen’s study represents the latest advance in decades-long work on minority student achievement pioneered by a group of researchers across the country, most notably Stanford Graduate School of Education Dean Claude Steele, whose book, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us, chronicles the discovery and explanation of stereotype threat. Working in this arena for the past 10 years, Cohen, often in collaboration with others such as Steele and Stanford psychology professor Greg Walton, has used the critical insights from the previous research, identifying the pernicious effect of stereotype threat to explore what types of measures could reduce its effects and close the achievement gap among minorities and other marginalized groups.
“In this particular study, we also add the insight that interventions can have significant positive long-term effects,” Cohen said.
As to the implications of the study for pedagogy, Cohen noted that such interventions in fact echo what great teachers do all the time: continually affirm children. “Clearly, small gestures of affirmation can have lasting consequences, especially when they are woven into the student’s daily experience,” he said. Teacher training, then, should include more formalization of such practices so that teachers who are not necessarily naturally inclined in this direction can draw upon them as part of their toolkit, he added.
But Cohen cautioned that such interventions are not a magic bullet. “Psychological threat might not contribute to a group’s performance in some schools, in which case affirmations shouldn’t have much effect,” he said.
“There are also family and neighborhood factors to always be aware of. At the school level you need committed teachers, and a solid curriculum. But when these factors are in place, when opportunities for growth are there, psychological interventions like these can help students seize the opportunities and change their lives for the better,” he concluded.
In addition to Cohen, the other authors of the paper include David K. Sherman, Kimberly A. Hartson and Kevin R. Binning of the University of California, Santa Barbara; Valerie Purdie-Vaughns of Columbia University; Julio Garcia, Suzanne Taborsky-Barba and Sarah Tomassetti of the University of Colorado; and A. David Nussbaum of the University of Chicago. The research has been funded by the National Science Foundation (Research and Evaluation on Education in Science and Engineering division; Social Psychology division), Spencer Foundation and the University of California All-Campus Consortium on Research for Diversity.
Marguerite Rigoglioso writes frequently for the Stanford Graduate School of Education.