Minority students’ achievement levels closed in on their peers’ during the 1970s and ’80s, but that progress stalled in the 1990s.
Why and what can be done remain elusive questions, though researchers recently turned up a tantalizing clue. In a study published in September in the journal Science, African American 7th graders who completed a 15-minute assignment early in the year earned markedly higher fall grades.
The idea, says Geoffrey Cohen, a University of Colorado at Boulder psychology professor and one of the lead authors, was to short-circuit “stereotype threat”—a type of performance-sapping stress experienced in situations where people fear that poor performance will confirm a stereotype.
The researchers presented students with a list of values. The students were told to circle their highest values and write about why they are important. A control group identified their least-important values and wrote about why someone else might hold them.
The objective—to reduce stereotype threat by affirming students’ sense of identity—appears to have worked: The African American students who wrote about their own values earned higher fall-term grades than classmates of the same race who didn’t. Moreover, they closed the achievement gap with white students—whose grades were unaffected by the exercise—by about 40 percent.
The researchers were so surprised that the effect lasted an entire term that they waited to publish until they could replicate their results the following year.
Cohen says more research is needed. “We only did the study in one grade at one school,” he notes, “so we don’t yet know how these interventions will play out in other schools.” And, he adds, no one expects the exercise to be a silver bullet.
Still, Cohen believes teachers can help students by keeping in mind that some may feel stereotype threat. “It’s an issue of empathy,” he says. “There’s a preoccupation or a question that many minority students may be asking themselves: ‘Will the stereotype be applied here to me and members of my group?’”
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2007 edition of Teacher