Race and Achievement

Race and Achievement

There are persistent differences in academic achievement between racial groups. Could a stunningly simple intervention make a big difference?


Closing the racial achievement gap. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

African American students lag far behind whites in academic performance, and few measures have helped. Yet remarkably, a recent experiment closed that gap by 40 percent over just one semester – with a single, fifteen-minute writing exercise. University of Colorado psychologist Geoffrey Cohen says they had seventh-graders start the year by writing about their values.


And this exercise gives a person a chance to say: “This is what I believe in, this is what makes me a good person, it gives me self-integrity.” And this kind of exercise has been shown to take the sting out of potential failure.

That added confidence was enough to improve black students’ grades, while the white students’ grades stayed the same. Cohen says the difference may stem from the negative stereotypes black students face every day. I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

Common sense tells us that big problems require big solutions. However, scientifically speaking, common sense isn't always right. Just think of all the small fixes that can have major results: Tightening a few screws can keep a large piece of furniture from collapsing. Quitting smoking can improve your lungs, your cardiovascular system, your skin, and even your breath. Replacing a cheap rubber gasket called an O-ring probably would have prevented the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, which claimed the lives of seven crew members.

Still, the idea that a fifteen-minute writing exercise could have such a strong impact on a decades-old social inequity may seem unbelieveable. Over half a century has passed since the Supreme Court ended state-sponsored school segregation, yet statistically, African American students still don't perform as well as their white counterparts by nearly every academic measure, and the causes appear to be so varied and complex that they're nearly impossible to sort out.

Cohen didn't try to address all the causes of the racial achievement gap. He just picked one: something called “stereotype threat.” This is a term coined by Stanford University social psychologist Claude Steele. In his research, Steele argues that when a negative stereotype is attached to a group you belong to, you naturally become anxious about living up to the stereotype. This anxiety, or “stereotype threat,” creates stress, which hurts your performance, thereby making the stereotype a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, Steele suggests that the general expectation that black students get lower grades than whites actually causes this to keep happening.

Cohen's study looked at several racially mixed seventh-grade English classes, with a total of 119 African American students and 124 European American students from similar economic backgrounds. In each classroom, half of these students – some black, some white – began the year by listing values that they held, and describing why those values were important to them. Cohen expected that affirming one's core values might help protect these students from stereotype threat. During the same fifteen minutes, the other students wrote about values that were not important to them, but might be important to other people. The exercises were handed out at random in sealed envelopes. Nobody, including the teachers, knew which kids had which exercises. The students themselves didn't even know there were two different exercises. The exercises were never mentioned again in the classroom.

By the end of the semester, the African American students who had written about their own values (the experimental group) had better grades in that subject than those who wrote about other people's values (the control group), and the “achievement gap” of African Americans and European Americans in the experimental group was 40 percent smaller than in the control group. Furthermore, only 9 percent of African American students in the experimental group received a D or an F in the class, compared to 20 percent in the control group.

These are remarkable results, considering how small and simple the intervention was. Does this mean that the students went through the year thinking back to that exercise and using it as inspiration? Maybe not, but Cohen says that wouldn't be necessary to explain the results. He says that even if the writing exercise helped African American students score just a little bit higher on the first test of the year, whether they realized it or not, that first good grade could boost their confidence for the next test, resulting in steadily improving performance. In contrast, a disappointing first test can make the stereotype threat hit home, starting a cycle of discouragement and self-doubt that can grow as the semester progresses.

Obviously, a short writing exercise isn't going to overcome two hundred years of racial inequality, no matter how effective it may be. But Cohen's research suggests that attacking the “stereotype threat” may be a useful avenue for closing the racial achievement gap, and that it may not take extraordinary measures to do some good.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. Define “racial achievement gap” and “stereotype threat.” How does this study suggest that they may be related?
  2. What was the difference between the experimental group and the control group in this study? Why do you think it was designed that way? Why not have a control group that received no writing exercise at all?
  3. Do you think there are other ways to interpret Cohen's results? Explain your answer.
  4. Based on this research, what other strategies do you think might help close the racial achievement gap in schools?
  5. Have you ever experienced “stereotype threat"? Can you think of other situations in which it might apply? Do you agree that it exists? Why or why not?

You may want to check out the October 6, 2006, Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: why caffeine withdrawal hurts, washing helps relieve guilt, closing the racial achievement gap in schools, the benign origins of some nasty pathogens, and a killer whale couple makes up after a fight.

For Educators

Closing the Racial Achievement Gap: It's Time to Look Beyond the Classroom explores factors outside the classroom that play a big role in minority students' performance.

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