The setting was an integrated suburban middle school: nearly evenly divided between black and white students. As is the case in many schools, white students outperformed black students both in grades and test scores. But how much of this difference is attributable to real differences in ability? After all, black kids grow up “knowing” that white kids do better in school. Perhaps this was just an example of kids living down to expectations.
A simple experiment would help find out. A team led by Geoffrey Cohen found a group teachers who taught the same 7th-grade course and were willing to participate in a very brief intervention. In each class, half the students would participate in an exercise designed to affirm their own abilities, while the other half completed a similar exercise that asked them to instead consider the abilities of others.
The self-affirming group of students (evenly divided between African Americans and European Americans) was asked to select from a list of 12 “values,” such as having good friends or being good at art, the value that was most important to them personally. They then wrote a paragraph about why the value was important to them.
The other group selected the least important value and explained why it might be important to someone else. Teachers were unaware of which students were in which group. The researchers then tracked the students’ performance for the remainder of the school year. Here are the results:
At every performance level, this chart (adjusted for covariates) shows that black students who completed the 15-minute affirmation exercise got better grades than students who did not (control). Interestingly, there was no similar effect for white students, suggesting that the effect of the exercise may have been to remove the handicapping of those students due to racial stereotyping. Even this short intervention asking students to reflect on their personal values appears to cause a significant effect.
How significant? 70 percent of African American students benefited from the intervention. The chances of this effect occurring due solely to chance are less than 1 in 5,000. But why would the effect of such a short exercise be so dramatic? The authors speculate that the benefits are cumulative: when students faced challenges shortly after they participated in the exercise, those who had reflected on their values performed slightly better. This gave them the confidence they needed to do better the next time a challenge was faced. Each successive success prepared students to face future challenges; in the end, this all added up to better performance.
In the second year of the study, the researchers kept more frequent tabs on students, checking grades ten times over the course of the year. They found that students who had affirmed their values did indeed rebound more quickly from setbacks and avoided the downward spiral that students in the control condition often fell into.
Does this study demonstrate that only small interventions are necessary to solve the racial disparity in educational achievement? No. Many black students are in districts that receive less funding than white students, or have parents with less education than white students. For these kids, much more is required than a quick exercise. And these results don’t appear to be as effective for the lowest-performing students in this group. But when other factors are equal, it may not take much to eliminate entirely the effects of racial stereotyping for many children.
Cohen, G.L, Garcia, J., Apfel, N., & Master, A. (2006). Reducing the racial achievement gap: A social-psychological intervention. Science, 313, 1307-1310.