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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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News Flash: How Tiny Boosts to Personal Identity Improve Minority Students' Grades

A few years ago I wrote a story about a new piece of research that blew my mind. A group of Yale University researchers led by Geoffrey Cohen gave a bunch of Connecticut seventh-graders a 15-minute writing assignment. Half the children in this racially-diverse, working-class school were prompted to write about their personal values - a task designed to validate their identity and self-worth -- and half were assigned a more neutral subject.

Their results seemed almost impossible. At the end of the semester, African American students who had written the personal essay earned an average course grade 0.24 points higher on the four-point A-F grading scale than their classmates of the same race. Cohen and colleagues were so startled that they tried it again with different kids. This time the affirming essay boosted black students' final grade by an average of 0.34 points.

The likelihood of this happening by chance, without any influence from the essay? One in 5,000.

I checked in with Cohen (now at Stanford University) this week, and now he has more mind-boggling data. The researchers wanted to see how long the effects of the affirmation would last, so they assigned students three to five similar essays over the course of seventh grade and tracked their grades for two years. The results:

  • Over seventh and eighth grades, the affirming essays raised African American students' GPA in all core academic courses by an average of 0.24 points.
  • The effects were strongest for low-performing black students, whose average GPA boost was 0.41 points.
  • Fewer affirmed students than others were placed in remediation.
  • The affirmed black students' grades did drop over time, as is common in middle school, but their curve was less steep than that of their same-race peers.

Say what? A few short in-class essays, and the trajectory of low-performing African American students' middle-school careers turns around? (None of these assignments made any difference in white students' grades, by the way.)

Like, wow.

Stereotype Threat

Cohen's explanation has to do with a fairly well-documented psychological phenomenon called "stereotype threat." In my 2007 story I explained it thus:

A member of a stereotyped group -- say, a woman playing baseball -- knows of a stereotypical belief that she's likely to "throw like a girl." As she winds up, somewhere just below her consciousness lurks the nagging fear that if she tosses a blooper, other people will chalk it up to her gender. That anxiety undermines her skill, and she does just what she doesn't want to do: She lobs a weak, "girly" throw.

The theory goes that a similar pressure compromises the performance of African American and other minority students in diverse classrooms, where they're constantly aware of the stereotype that their group does poorly in school.

Cohen posits that this creates a self-perpetuating (and self-worsening) cycle. Stereotype threat messes with little Johnny's head when he's taking a math test, so he does poorly on that test, which shakes his confidence and makes the stereotype feel more real to him, which makes him perform all the more poorly on the next test, etc. Cohen believes the essays about personal values - which reinforced the children's sense of individual identity and worth -- interrupted that downward spiral and changed its direction. They did better on their next assignment, which in turn boosted their confidence for the next one.

My question to Cohen was: "I know you scientists have to be cautious about your conclusions and all, but seriously, is there any reason teachers shouldn't just run out and do this in their classrooms right now?"

He had some good reasons to proceed more thoughtfully. "The devil is in the details," he says. The timing may be important - his essays were timed for key transitions (the beginning of the school year) and periods of stress (just before standardized tests). And the researchers tailored the essay prompts carefully to the particular cultural fabric of each school. There's more research under way to illuminate exactly what works, when, and for which students.

Caution and all, the powerful message I take from these findings is this: the psychological environment we create for children in the classroom has a massive impact. And very small things - smaller than we realize -- can define that environment.

Inoculating Against Stereotype Threat

I'm reminded of what I saw last year in Louisville, Kentucky, where a district-wide effort called CARE for Kids aims to build a strong sense of community and mutual support within classrooms. Could a program like that inoculate kids against the creeping effects of stereotype threat?

"I think the kinds of interventions we do are weaker versions of what excellent teachers and programs do all the time in the real world, which is convey this message that you are a valued part of our community, we believe in you, and you belong," says Cohen. "Weaker but also very precise."

Cohen's intervention isn't the only one showing promise. Other researchers, including his Stanford colleague Carol Dweck, tried teaching New York City seventh-graders that the brain is malleable and can grow with effort and learning -- the antithesis of the idea that "you're born with it." The students' motivation improved, and as their peers' math grades fell over time, theirs stayed constant.

Call me an optimist, but I'm envisioning a day when we have a full menu of simple, targeted psychological interventions that could make a big impact for kids in school. Is that possible?

"Yes," Cohen says. "That's one of the really thrilling things about this research. If it's done carefully and systematically there's a real potential for large-scale social change." Larger efforts to put more great teachers in classrooms are more important, he adds, "But coupled with this kind of approach we could really do a lot of good."

Do these ideas ring true for you, in your education experience? How do you cultivate a sense of capability and belonging for your students?

-- Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia

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