The Situationist

Archive for June 8th, 2009

The Situational Effects of a Black President

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 8, 2009

Little Obama FanLast week for Diverse Online, Angela Dodson, wrote an excellent review of conflicting studies regarding the so-called “Obama Effect” — the increase in standardized test scores of Blacks owing to the election of Barack Obama.  Here are some excerpts.

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Could merely knowing that a Black man has been elected president of the United States raise the scores of Blacks on standardized tests and shrink the unrelenting and formidable achievement gap? Possibly, suggests a recent study documenting the “Obama Effect” that will appear in the July issue of a scientific journal along side a study that contradicts it.

Preliminary results of a study suggesting that Barack Obama’s political success translated into a narrower gap between Blacks and Whites on a standardized tests in 2008 attracted both optimism and skepticism when it was reported around the time of his inauguration.

It offered hope that an affirming role model and positive feelings could patch the gap between Whites and Blacks long documented in almost every measure of academic performance. Media reports have suggested that parents and educators see ample anecdotal evidence that Obama’s example has inspired Black students to take schoolwork more seriously.

When one team of researchers tested Blacks and Whites at four intervals at the peak of the 2008 election year, median scores for the two groups shifted, significantly narrowing the spread after Obama’s election, according to the results announced earlier by the researchers, Dr. Ray A. Friedman of Vanderbilt University, Dr. David Marx of San Diego State University and Dr. Sei Jin Ko of Northwestern University.

However, a study by Dr. Joshua Aronson, an associate professor of applied psychology of New York University, one of the pioneers of research on race and academic achievement, and colleagues found, “Test scores were unaffected by prompts to think about Obama and no relationship was found between test performance and positive thoughts about Obama.” The findings were based on a test administered after Obama emerged as the Democratic nominee last summer but were only recently noted in the news media.

Ironically, Friedman had not expected to find a difference but did. Aronson said he expected to find one and did not.

“I found not even a shred of evidence,” Aronson told Diverse. “I did not expect a full closing of the gap, because I think the gap is about many things, but I did expect to find something … It just was not there.”

The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology will publish both studies, along with two other papers on the effects of Obama’s election. The articles are already available online.

Even if the “Obama Effect” proves to have only a small effect, Friedman told Diverse, “the underlying impact of Black/White differences in scores is so fundamentally important that any small shift is going to be beneficial for the country.”

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Aronson, often along with Claude Steele, the noted Stanford University social psychologist, has conducted numerous studies on how the fear of confirming negative stereotypes about one’s group depresses the performance of Black, Hispanic, and female college students. They identified this phenomenon known as “stereotype threat” in a 1995 study. Friedman cited their work in his article.

Earlier studies have shown that asking a participant’s race, ethnicity and gender and implying that the tests were an important measure of intellectual abilities can lower scores but that introducing a positive role model into the testing situation can raise them. Some researchers have found, for instance, that having a math test administered by a strong female role model significantly boosts girls’ scores on a math tests, overcoming stereotypes about women’s abilities.

Although Aronson did not find an Obama effect last year, he said he plans to conduct another test this summer. “I believe if we play up the struggles of Obama, rather than his greatness, we will see an effect.”

The NYU researcher believes that one reason scores might not have been affected is that Obama is seen as so naturally gifted, as opposed to having had to work hard to become so talented, that he is not the kind of role model that has proven effective in earlier research.

“Perhaps his abilities are so stellar that the typical student cannot confidently conclude that ‘if Obama can succeed, so can I,’” the Aronson report said.

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“We have captured the critical time, which was the transition before and after Obama, which of course can never be done again,” he said. “But I think there are going to be a lot of studies as to what impact Obama could have and what families can do. Maybe it’s that before your kid goes out to take the SAT you could give him a book on Obama.”

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To read the entire article, click here.

To read some related Situationist posts, see Stereotype Lift – The Obama Effect,” Stereotype Threat and Exit Exams,” The Situation of the Achievement Gap,” 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.”

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