Affirming Values and Reducing the Racial Achievement Gap

As school performance becomes a bigger issue in the United States, many policy leaders, teachers and administrators are looking at the plethora of issues faces our schools. One such issue is the racial achievement gap. It seems that many minorities are not receiving the same grades as their white and Asian peers. A number of factors may contribute to this difference, but it’s an important area to address.
Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder and Yale University conducted a study in the mid-2000s to address this racial achievement gap (Cohen, Garcia, Purdie-Vaughns, Apfel & Brzustoski, 2009). Although this series of work is a few years old, I felt it was important to revisit some of the findings, in light of some renewed interest in teachers’ performance.

The researchers had middle school students do a brief writing task-a self-affirmation paradigm. In this task, the students rank a list of given values (such as art, sports/athletics, relationships with friends and family, etc) on how important these values are to them. In the experimental condition, students wrote about their number one value and why it is important to them. In the control condition, students wrote about why a less highly ranked value might be important to someone else. They did this writing task in one of their classes, and were each randomly assigned to condition. Students completed another booster writing task a few weeks later.

What the researchers found is that those African-American students who had written about their most important value earned higher grades in that semester than those in the control condition. The increase in GPA was about 0.34. Most interesting is that this writing task caused those students who were struggling most to improve the most as well. The numbers suggest that there was an overall 40% reduction in the racial achievement gap in this study.Caucasian students showed significantly less of a benefit, although there was no decrease in performance due to the writing condition.

Long-term benefits were evaluated as well, and the researchers found that over 2 years, the GPA of African-American students was raised by an average of 0.24 points! The low-achieving African-Americans saw an increase of 0.41 GPA points over the 2 year follow-up. What may be most telling of their success, however, is that they repeated grades less often, from 18% rate to a 5% rate of repetition.

The researchers believe that there is a downward trend in student performance. If you catch these students early on and disrupt this process, you can see long-term benefits, as they did. Researchers believe that this writing task may have increased their self-integrity, sense of adequacy and interrupted the cycle that early poor performance leads to later poor performance.

So what does this mean in a real world setting? Although it would be unlikely to find a nation-wide self-affirmation intervention, it’s particularly encouraging to note that simple steps can have long-term benefits when done early enough in the student’s academic career. Self-affirmation causes students to evaluate what is important to them and why. If we encourage students, even those struggling, to remind themselves of things they enjoy, and possibly even encourage them to strengthen those areas in their lives, academic performance could be boosted. For example, if a student thinks that art and creativity are one of their highest values, teachers and parents could encourage this student to pursue those interests. By reminding them that they are good at something may be helping their performance in lagging areas. If the student thinks relationships with friends and family are most important (they usually do), then spending quality time with family may boost their performance as well, and probably for a number of reasons.

This research should provide hope that under-performing students are just stuck in a rut, but that simple interventions may be able to push them out of that rut and into a long-term habit of better grades.