A team of researchers has hit on a surprisingly simple way to potentially narrow the achievement gaps that widen between African-American and white students in middle school: Have students write for 15 minutes at the start of the school year on the values they cherish.
The teaching technique, which is described in a study published last week in the peer-reviewed journal Science, builds on a concept called “stereotype threat” that was pioneered in the 1990s by Claude M. Steele, a Stanford University psychologist.
Working mostly with college students, Mr. Steele discovered that black students and women do worse on tests when they become worried that their performance will confirm negative stereotypes about their groups.
The new study tests that idea for the first time in middle schools and attempts to find a way to head off those potential psychological threats before they occur. The researchers based their findings on results from two randomized experiments conducted a year apart with mostly middle-class 7th graders in social studies classes in an unnamed middle school in the Northeast. In all, 119 African-American students and 124 white students took part.
In both studies, teachers passed out sealed envelopes that contained directions for a writing exercise. The directions varied depending on whether students had been randomly assigned to the control or the treatment group.
In the treatment groups, students were asked to write about their most important value or values. In the control groups, the topic was students’ least important values. Classes resumed as usual when the exercise ended.
By the end of the marking period, the black students who had done the more self-affirming writing exercise on average got better grades in the class—and in all of their classes—than the African-American students in the control group. The difference amounted to about a “plus” on a 4-point, letter-grade scale. But there were no differences in academic performance among the white students.
As a result, the achievement gap between the two racial groups shrank by 40 percent.
“What is surprising is that a 15-minute intervention would show up in semester-long work,” said Edmund W. Gordon, a psychology professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College and Yale University. Though not involved in the study, he is a longtime scholar on racial achievement gaps. “If it can be substantiated,” Mr. Gordon said of the effect found in the study, “it could be very useful.”
The study’s authors agreed that the improvements they tracked were surprising.
Educators and researchers have struggled for decades to address achievement gaps in K-12 schools that leave black students trailing behind their white counterparts.
“But a small intervention can have a big effect when you unlock the influences of what’s already there in the classroom environment,” said Geoffrey L. Cohen, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He was a co-principal investigator of the study with Julio Garcia, a Yale University researcher.
“Our intervention took place in one grade, in a school with great teachers, good resources, and students that had the skills to do better,” Mr. Cohen added. “By introducing our intervention we could allow these influences to express themselves … like a light switch turning on a light.”
Mr. Cohen and other scholars said the results also seem dramatic because they disrupted a downward trend in academic performance. In the control group, African-American students’ grades deteriorated over the academic quarter.
“I do believe there was an effect on student effort,” said Ronald F. Ferguson, a co-director of the Achievement Gap Initiative, a cross-disciplinary study group at Harvard University.
But it’s not clear, he said, whether the improvements came about because the intervention had dispelled “stereotype threat” or whether something else affected student motivation.
He and other scholars called for more research to see whether the intervention can be as effective in different grades, in urban schools, or in classrooms where the majority of students are black.
A version of this article appeared in the September 06, 2006 edition of Education Week as Writing About Values Found To Shrink Achievement Gap