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Science: Researchers Report Writing Exercise May Close Racial Achievement Gap
As the school year begins, parents and caregivers who recently received school “report cards” showing racial achievement gaps in their children’s classrooms may be wondering what can be done. They may be heartened to learn that a simple writing exercise can narrow the gap by as much as 40 percent by the end of an academic term.
Geoffrey Cohen of the University of Colorado–Boulder and Julio Garcia of Yale University and their colleagues found that a 15-minute, identity-affirming writing exercise at the beginning of the seventh-grade school year improved African-American students’ grades at the end of the term, reducing the achievement gap between African-Americans and European-Americans by 40 percent.
The report was published in the 1 September issue of the journal Science, published by AAAS, the nonprofit science society.
This intervention deals with the phenomenon of “stereotype threat,” in which people belonging to negatively stereotyped groups worry that performing poorly will confirm the stereotype. If too severe, this stress can itself undermine their performance, the Science authors say.
The researchers investigated whether an exercise in which students reaffirmed their sense of self-integrity could lessen the effects of stereotype threat. They found that asking students to write about why certain values were important to them helped African-American students maintain their achievement levels throughout the remainder of the term.
The authors suggest that the exercise was effective in part because it interrupted the negative cycle in which stereotype threat and poor performance feed off one another, leading to ever-worsening performance.
A related Perspective article by Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, discusses the findings in the context of educational interventions and the importance of carefully designed field studies. He points out that, though small interventions can have important effects, they should not divert attention from addressing other factors that contribute to the racial achievement gap, such as poverty, racism and lack of parental involvement.
“Reducing the Racial Achievement Gap: A Social-Psychological Intervention,” by G.L. Cohen at University of Colorado at Boulder in Boulder, Colo.; G.L. Cohen, J. Garcia, and N. Apfel at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.; A. Master at Stanford University in Stanford, CA and Yale University in New Haven, Conn.
“The Power of Social Psychological Interventions,” by T.D. Wilson at University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va.
31 August 2006