The Situationist

The Situation of the Achievement Gap

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 20, 2009

ClassroomSituationist Contributor Geoffrey Cohen has received a lot of attention in the media over the last week because of fascinating research he and his collaborators are doing and reently desribed in Science regarding one way to help reduce the achievement gap in education.

Here are excerpts from one such story, this one, titled “Study: Writing About Values Boosts Grades, Shrinks Achievement Gap,”  by Lea Winerman for Online NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.

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A short self-affirming writing exercise that took only about an hour of class time boosted struggling black junior high school students’ grade point average by nearly half a point over two years, according to a new study.  The surprising result, published this week in the journal Science, suggests a new way to combat the persistent achievement gap in grades, test scores and graduation rates between black and white students, according to the researchers. “The intervention is relatively brief, but it’s powerful in a lot of ways,” says [Situationist Contributor] Geoffrey Cohen, a social psychologist at the University of Colorado. Cohen and his colleagues followed more than 400 seventh-grade students at a suburban public school in Connecticut.

The school’s population was about half black and half white. In a series of 15-minute writing assignments, the researchers asked half of the students to complete a self-affirming exercise: to choose from a list of values — such as relationships with friends and family, athletic ability and smarts — and write about the value most important to them. A control group was asked to write about why the values they ranked as unimportant might matter to someone else. In early results published in 2006, the researchers found that the exercise reduced the achievement gap between black and white students by 40 percent over one term. Researchers said the exercises benefitted low-achieving black students the most, while they appeared to have little impact on white students or already high-achieving black students.

In the new study, Cohen and his colleagues tracked the students until the end of eighth grade. They found that the benefits for low-achieving black students continued for the entire two years — students who completed the self-affirmation exercise raised their GPA by four-tenths of a point compared to the control group. They were also less likely to need remedial work or to repeat a grade — 5 percent as compared to 18 percent of the control group. The intervention continued to have no effect on white students and high-achieving black students.

That such a small intervention could have such big effects “surprises most people to the point that some people I know didn’t believe the initial finding,” says psychologist Richard Nisbett, an expert on achievement and intelligence at the University of Michigan. “But what makes it believable to me is that, as a social psychologist, I’ve learned that ‘dinky’ things sometimes have big effects.”

The exercise is based on a tenet of psychological research called stereotype threat. Previous studies have found that when people are reminded of negative stereotypes about their racial, gender or other group, the stress of worrying about confirming those stereotypes can negatively affect their performance. The self-affirmation exercise, by reminding students about what is really important to them, could help reduce that stress, the researchers suggest. And by timing the intervention to occur at a crucial period such as the beginning of middle school, Cohen says, the benefits could compound.

“Performance is recursive,” he says. “If you start off at something and you’re stressed and do badly, then that makes you do worse the next time. And that seems to happen a lot in middle school, where you see this downward spiral […] By just tweaking [the students] a bit you could set them on a totally different trajectory.”

But Cohen added the intervention is not a panacea to solve all students’ educational woes. “We have no illusions that this is a silver bullet,” he says, “our philosophy is that the more positive forces in a child’s life, the better. That includes good teachers, good homes […] and then also psychological interventions.”

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To read the entire article, click here.  For related Situationsist posts, see “Stereotype Lift – The Obama Effect,” “Sexism: The Worst Part Is Not Knowing,” “Stereotype Threat and Performance,” Race Attributions and Georgetown University Baseketball” “The Situation of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers,’ “The Gendered Situation of Science and Math,” “Gender-Imbalanced Situation of Math, Science, and Engineering,” “Sex Differences in Math and Science,” “You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes,” “Women’s Situation in Economics,” and “Your Group is Bad at Math.”

5 Responses to “The Situation of the Achievement Gap”

  1. […] building student confidence to improve academic achievement; see NY Times and The Situationist […]

  2. Stuart Buck said

    This sounds great, but for some reason it reminds me of the “6 Second Abs” commercial.

  3. […] The Situation of the Achievement Gap […]

  4. […] in discussing the results here and here, Cohen is careful to note that such interventions are not intended as a cure-all, but are to be […]

  5. The Black/White Academic Achievement Gap can be effectively addressed and narrowed during this decade! History teaches us that “men and nations behave wisely, when they have exhausted all other alternatives” (Abba Eban). Please preview our book “Between the Rhetoric and Reality” Lauriat Press; Simpkins&Simpkins,2009. It can be previewed on either “Amazon.Com, or Borders”.

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