Writing about “Reducing the Racial Achievement Gap: A Social-Psychological Intervention” by Geoffrey L. Cohen, Julio Garcia, Nancy Apfel and Allison Master (
For as long as educators in the United States have been collecting standardized test scores, minority groups such as African Americans on average perform at a lower level than do their majority group counterparts (eg Caucasian students) in academic situations. In "Reducing the Racial Achievement Gap"
Cohen and his research team targeted seventh-graders from middle-class to lower-middle class families at a suburban northeastern middle school. The student body was divided roughly equally between African Americans and European Americans. Early in the fall term, teachers were asked to administer an exercise packet to African American and Caucasian students who had been randomly assigned (within each racial group) to either a treatment or control condition. Importantly, the teachers did not know the purpose of the study nor did they know which students had been assigned to which condition. The packet presented a list of values (for instance, maintaining relationships with friends or family, working to be good at art, cultivating athletic ability). Students in the treatment condition were asked to indicate the value most important to them and write a brief paragraph explaining why they considered the value important. Students in the control condition were asked to indicate their least important value from the list and write a paragraph about why this value might be important to someone else. Once students had finished writing, they placed their packet in an envelope, sealed it, and returned it to their teacher. The entire procedure took approximately 15 minutes.
At the end of the term, Cohen and his colleagues were given access to the transcripts of the students. Not surprisingly, African American students performed worse than their Caucasian counterparts overall. However, African American students in the treatment condition (those who wrote about their most important values) performed better than those in the control condition by about one quarter of a grade point in both the course in which they had initially completed their packets and in their overall grades for other courses that semester, reducing the racial achievement gap by 40%. This improvement was not limited to a few students: the treatment benefited about 70 percent of the African American students in the treatment group.
Among the Caucasian studies, meanwhile, there was no difference in performance between the treatment and control groups. Given that the average difference between African Americans in the control condition and Caucasians overall was about 70 percent of a grade point, and the African Americans in the treatment group improved by roughly 25 percent of a grade point, this represents about a 40 percent reduction in the racial achievement gap.
So why did this simple 15-minute have such a big effect? The answer may lie in the stereotype threat. This theory suggests that awareness of a negative stereotype about a social group in a particular domain can degrade task performance exhibited by group members. (These worries are significant, for they impact the transient memory store -or working memory- we normally rely on to solve complex problems.) Other studies have shown African Americans perform poorly on cognitive tasks reputed to assess intelligence, and women perform at a less-than-optimal level on math problems for which they have been told gender differences exist.
Cohen's work suggests that one way to reverse the stereotype threat is to allow students to reaffirm their self-integrity. Having African American students write about qualities that are important to them, which presumably enhances their sense of self-worth and value, appears to buffer minority students against threat and its consequences. But whatever the cause of this raised performance, it bears an implication that is hard to refute: the racial achievement gap is tractable.