Connecting the Dots: How Race in America’s Classrooms Affects Achievement

Connecting the Dots: How Race in America’s Classrooms Affects Achievement


[music] [pause] [pause]>>TATUM: Thank you very much, and I am just
pleased to be here, very pleased to have this opportunity to speak to you all. It’s an honor
to be asked to give the Lee Gurel Lecture, and I want to thank the APA Teachers of Psychology
in Secondary Schools for inviting me. I am curious to know how many of you in this
room are, indeed, teaching psychology in a secondary school. About half. Okay. Well, I’m delighted to see
all of you here, but I want to say that this talk is especially for those of you who are
teaching high school psychology, because I’m hopeful that it has information in it that
you can apply in your own classroom context. As you know, they ask you to give the title
for your presentation months before you actually giveit, and I have modified my title just
a little bit. It is still “Connecting the Dots: How Race in America’s Classrooms Affects
Achievement, or Why We Still Need to Talk About Race.” It is a long title, but I am delighted to
say that this presentation will be followed by a discussion on “Talking about Race and
Ethnicity: Crucial but Difficult,” and I look forward to that opportunity with my colleagues,
Elliot Hammer and Kimberly Patterson, to elaborate on the conversation. Honest conversation about what we might more
accurately call the illusion of race is, indeed, needed in many parts of our society, but in
my view, it is where psychology and education intersect in schools that our conversation
about race is most necessary. What do I mean by that? I mean this: the field of psychology
provided a framework for our educational system that has not served children of color well.
In fact, it was the undeniably racist attitudes of some of the founding fathers of twentieth
century psychology that led to the structure of American schools, schools which prepare
some students for success, and doom others to a life of underemployment and low productivity. I also mean this: that while twentieth century
psychology might have been a major contributor to the problem, twenty-first century psychology
can be a major contributor to the solution. There is psychological research today that
offers real promise to improving academic performance and reducing the so-called “achievement
gaps” in our society. And, why should we care about that? Perhaps
it goes without saying, but I want you to consider the illustration this African proverb
provides. Every morning a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest
lion, or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the
slowest gazelle, or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or
a gazelle. When the sun comes up, you better start running. Whether you are a gazelle,
or a lion, you better wake up running. Whether we have gazelles or lions in our classroom,
we better teach them to run, to be at their best every day. Thomas Friedman uses this example in his book,
The World is Flat, to make the point that we live in a world where global competition
is real and where being average, or mediocre, just won’t cut it. Average gazelles, or mediocre
lions, get eaten or starve. We have to educate for everyone’s excellence,
if our nation is going to thrive. Our success, as a nation, depends on the effective education
of all of our students. We can’t afford to write any of them off. And yet, we are embarked
on a task that has never been accomplished before. And it’s important to acknowledge
that. We have never, ever, in this country, until
perhaps recently, sought to educate all of our children for excellence. Our schools were
not designed for that purpose, and we have never done it. That doesn’t mean that we can’t,
or that we shouldn’t. Indeed, we must. But it is important to acknowledge that the very
students in the past who used to be ignored, are the very students who will determine the
future of our country, simply by virtue of our nature’s changing demographics. So, let me quickly describe, or maybe not
so quickly, but let me describe where psychology steered us wrong, and then, how psychology
can get us on the right track. Where we went wrong: the notion of intelligence
as a fixed entity. I’m going to come back to that in just a minute,
but let me begin by saying, when public education was first being established in our country,
it was with the idea that an educated citizenry was necessary for a successful democracy.
But when our democracy was being established, only White male landowners could vote. The
educated citizenry that our founding fathers had in mind did not include many of the people
in this room. White women were not allowed to vote, and the constitution, as you know,
originally defined Black people as equivalent to three-fifths of a person, without the rights
of citizenship, and in slaveholding states, it was illegal to educate them. The right to vote was hard won, and not guaranteed
until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, in my lifetime, I would like to point out, and I
am not that old. From the beginning, race determined who had
access to education, and it still shapes how we think about who can benefit from it. It
is common practice among educators these days to emphasize the idea that all children can
learn at a high level, but the question is, do we really believe that? A lot of people
don’t, and it’s because they have an outdated view of one idea that is important in psychology
and central to the educational practice, and again, that is the notion of intelligence
as a fixed and unchanging entity. The concept of intelligence as an inborn attribute
that determines one’s capacity to learn is firmly embedded in our educational system.
And, who can question that some people do seem to process information faster than others?
We see evidence of that around us, but the question we might ask is, how fast is fast
enough? Psychologist Jeff Howard, a long time ago,
wrote that, “If you have learned to speak your native language by the age of three,
a task of significant complexity, then you have all the synaptic speed you need to be
successful in school.” The key to your success in school is not inborn ability, but rather
effective effort, produced in the context of high expectations. This idea that most of us are smart enough
to be successful in school runs counter to our long standing practice of testing and
sorting. So, where did the idea of testing and sorting come from, and what does it have
to do with race? To answer that question, we need to go back to the introduction of
the idea of intelligence as something that could be quantified and measured using standardized
tests. As many of you know, the French psychologist,
Alfred Binet, is credited with inventing the first intelligence test in 1905, though that
was not his intention. He was commissioned by the French minister of public education
to develop techniques for identifying children who might need special educational services.
The test he created was intended to be administered individually, and he was very specific about
how his new measure should be used. He believed that intelligence was far too complex to capture
with a single number or score, and ironically, he worried that the use of his test would
lead to inappropriate labeling of children. He identified three core principles that should
govern the use of his tests, and the interpretation of scores. Scores, he said, should be seen
as a practical device. They do not define anything innate or permanent. Two, the tests
should not be used as a general device for ranking all students, but should be used for
the limited purpose of identifying children who were having difficulty. And, three, the
aim of testing should be to identify children in order to help them improve, not to place
labels on them, which themselves can become limiting. However, all three were disregarded
when the test was imported to America. The misuse of his and other tests is related
to two ideas which were actively embraced by American psychologists. The first is the
idea that test scores represent a single, measurable thing in the head, called general
intelligence; and the second is the idea of hereditarianism, the assumption that intelligence
is largely inherited, with little influence of environmental factors. Perhaps, not surprisingly, the hereditarian
theory of intelligence grew in popularity in America, at a time of extreme nationalism,
during the twentieth century (the early twentieth century), a time when a wave of immigration
from southern and eastern Europe was taking place. Largely the result of the psychologist
Henry Goddard and his testing of immigrants at Ellis Island, the American public came
to suspect that a disproportionately large percentage of the new Ellis Island immigrants
were mentally defective. In 1882, the United States Congress passed
a law prohibiting mentally defective people from passing through the Ellis Island checkpoint.
Enforcing this law proved to be difficult because as many as 5000 immigrants needed
to be inspected each day. In 1910, Goddard was among those invited to
Ellis Island to investigate how the screening process might be expedited. In 1912, he returned
to the island, accompanied by two specially trained assistants. The procedure he developed
was a two-step process. One assistant would visually screen for suspected mental defectives,
as the immigrants passed through the checkpoint. These individuals would then proceed to another
location where the other assistant would test them with a variety of performance measures,
and a revised version of the Binet scales. Goddard believed that trained inspectors could
be more accurate than the Ellis Island physicians. The key to their success, he believed, was
expertise, developed through experience. He wrote, “After a person has had considerable
experience in this work, he almost gets a sense of what a feeble minded person is, so
that he can tell one afar off. The people who are best at this work, and who I believe
should do this work, are women. Women seem to have closer observation than men. It was
quite impossible for others to see how these two young women could pick out the feeble
minded, without the aid of the Binet test at all.” Among those tested, 83% of the Jews, 80% of
the Hungarians, 79% of Italians, and 87% of Russians were identified as feeble minded.
The number of immigrants who were deported increased exponentially, as a result of those
screening measures. Goddard, himself, was surprised that these
percentages were so high, but he did not think it was a problem with his assessment process.
He concluded we were not scraping, quote, “the bottom of the barrel,” as far as the
immigrant populations were concerned; the smartest one’s having already arrived. However, by 1928, Goddard had changed his
mind about the value of the feeble minded. He wrote, quote, “They do a great deal of
work that no one else will do. … There is an immense amount of drudgery to be done,
an immense amount of work for which we do not wish to pay enough to secure more intelligent
workers. … May it be that, possibly, the moron has his place?” While Goddard introduced Binet’s scale to
America, Lewis Terman was the primary architect of its popularity. Terman, a professor at
Stanford University, revised the test to create the name we all know, the Stanford-Binet Intelligence
Scale. The test standardized by Terman led to the simplification of test results represented
by a number; a number we commonly refer to as IQ, or Intelligence Quotient. Like Goddard, Terman was a very influential
psychologist, and he had strongly held views about the fixed and unchanging quality of
intelligence as an inherited characteristic. He was also an advocate of eugenics, and expressed
his views on the subject in a widely used textbook, published in 1916, titled, The Measurement
of Intelligence. He shared Goddard’s concerns about the negative impact on society by those
they called the feeble minded. Terman wrote, “Among laboring men and servant girls there
are thousands like them. … They are the world’s hewers of wood and drawers of water.
And yet, as far as intelligence is concerned, the tests have told the truth. … No amount
of school instruction will ever make them intelligent voters or capable voters in the
true sense of the word.” He went on to say, “The fact that one meets
this type with such frequency among Indians, Mexicans, and negroes suggests, quite forcibly,
that the whole question of racial differences in mental traits will have to be taken up
anew, and by experimental methods. … Children of this group should be segregated in special
classes and be given instruction which is concrete and practical. They cannot master,
but they can often be made efficient workers, able to look out for themselves. … There
is not possibility at present of convincing society that they should not be allowed to
reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view, they constitute a grave problem, because
of their unusually prolific breeding.” End quote. Though these ideas sound sinister to most
of us today, these were mainstream writers and thinkers who enjoyed considerable influence
in our educational systems, and in the American Psychological Association. The Stanford-Binet
test led to widespread testing in American schools and the results were used to track
students according to their measured ability. Terman’s test gave U.S. educator’s the first
simple, quick, cheap, and seemingly objective way to track students, or to assign them to
different course sequences according to their ability. Today, most people acknowledge that heredity
is one factor influencing intelligence, just as heredity influences height. But, environmental
factors, like poor nutrition, ultimately impact how tall you are, despite your genetic makeup.
And it seems obvious that intelligence is also impacted by environmental influences,
both in and out of school. In fact, today neuroscientists tell us that opportunities
for early learning are one of the key factors in brain development; clearly a function of
development, but still, the hereditary arguments persist. Yet, if this view of intelligence is problematic,
what other views are there? Well, Howard Gardner, who is speaking right this moment, is well
known for his views of multiple intelligences, not just a single factor. But, even before
Howard Gardener, there was Jean Piaget, the Swiss developmental psychologist, who defined
intelligence as an ongoing process of adaptation, not a fixed trait. Piaget understood intelligence
as something that comes as a result of our active engagement with our environment that
gets more complex over time, as a result of our experience. Today’s neuroscientists would certainly support
that view. Neural pathways become more complex as we learn new things. This idea is echoed
in the work of social psychologist and educator, Jeff Howard, who talks about smart as something
you become through your effective effort, not an unchanging characteristic. Now I know I’ve already spent already a significant
amount of time this afternoon talking about this idea of intelligence, but I think it
is essential to understanding how deeply embedded this idea is in our systems of education,
and how inherently rooted in the racism of eugenics movement it was. Combine this with
the long tradition of stereotypical representations of Black and brown people in popular culture
as either stupid, lazy, dangerous, hypersexual, or all of those things combined, and we have
a situation in which it’s very likely that Black and Latino children will enter school
situations where they are disadvantaged from the beginning by a teacher’s lowered expectations,
as compared to those he or she may have for the White students in the class. Regardless of our own racial or ethnic background,
we have all been exposed to these stereotypes, and unless we are consciously working to counteract
their influence on our behavior, it is likely that it will shape, suddenly perhaps, our
interactions with those who have been so stereotyped. The result is lowered expectations, and disinvestment
in the education of those so stereotyped. We can ill afford to do this, so I want to
lift up, as an example, in particular, science education. If we talk for a moment about science
education, this is an area where we, as a nation, have fallen far behind. In the midst
of our current, economic challenges, many people have argued that the future of America
depends on innovation. Innovation depends on science and technology. The study of science
is often held up as a sign of intelligence, as in, “it’s not rocket science,” when we
want to convey that something’s not too hard. When we at the pipeline of people of color
in science, soon the majority in the U.S., we see more clearly than ever that we are
failing. If we consider the higher education end of that pipeline, we know that the demographics
of higher education are changing. According to the most recent status report on minorities
and higher education, produced by the American Council on Education, college enrollment is
steadily increasing, but that population growth is being driven by students of color. Growth
of White enrollment is virtually flat, but the enrollment of students of color is [unclear]
growing dramatically. Given our population trends, according to
the ACE report, we can expect this trend to continue. Two-thirds of minority enrollment
growth was attributable to women; enrollment growing by nearly 1.8 million women, compared
with 842,000 men, over the last 10 years. Hispanics accounted for 41% of the new minority
students. 37% of the new students were African American. In another report, also by the American Council
on Education, focused specifically on science and technology, we learn that African Americans
and Hispanics enter colleges and universities with the same level of interest in the fields
of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as their White and Asian American peers do,
but they don’t persist at the same rates. We have a leaky pipeline. With only about
13% of bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields being awarded to African Americans and Hispanics,
as compared to 31% for Asian Americans, and 16% for Whites, and again, despite the fact
that students enter expressing interest in the STEM fields at about the same rate. So, if African American/Hispanic students
express interest in the STEM fields at rates similar to White and Asian American students,
but are much less likely to complete undergraduate degrees in this area, what accounts for this
lack of persistence? The leaky pipeline has been linked to factors such as family educational
background, low socioeconomic status, inadequate high school preparation; the same kind of
factors that are used to explain the achievement gap throughout K-12 education (uneducated
or unsupportive families, poverty, inadequate schools). But despite these risk factors, there are
some students who persist in their study of science. And, if we understood the factors
that contribute to their persistence and ultimate success, then perhaps we could help more students
across the board, even in the face of less favorable circumstances. So, for a few moments, I will talk about what
I see as the hope of psychology in this arena; what I’m going to call the psychology of persistence,
or the psychology of success; the psychology that motivates you to wake up running. So let’s start with the issue of expectations.
The importance of teacher expectations should not be underestimated. I am sure that most,
if not all of you in this room, are familiar with the classic study in psychology conducted
by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson to test the impact of teacher expectations on
student performance, what we all refer to now as the “Pygmalion Effect.” Is there anyone who needs me to review that
study? Okay, I will. So, for those of you who might not be familiar,
I’ll quickly review it. All of the children in this study, [unclear] they were young children.
All of the children were administered a nonverbal test of intelligence, which was designated
as a test that would predict intellectual blooming. Approximately 20% of the children
were chosen at random to form the experimental group. The teachers of these children were told that
their scores on the tests indicated that they would show surprising gains and intellectual
competence during the next eight months of school. The only difference between the “bloomers”
and the other children was really what the teacher had been told about them. They were
randomly assigned. At the end of the school year, eight months
later, all the children were retested with the same nonverbal measure. Overall, the children
who had been identified as “bloomers” had done just that. They showed a significantly
greater gain than did the children of the control group. And this is what is known as
the “Pygmalion Effect.” The children rose to meet the expectations of the teacher. This study, which was first conducted in 1966,
has been repeated many times. And, the findings, the impact of expectations, certainly now
taken for granted, but researchers now look at not whether expectations play a role, but
more relevantly perhaps, or more importantly, how are the teachers’ expectations communicated?
How is it that the child knows what the teacher’s expectations are? One finding that has emerged
is that instructors appear to teach more content, give more information, and to teach it with
more warmth of affect for students for whom they have high expectations. A teacher’s affect and expectations can be
communicated in many ways. In an interview I conducted in an earlier part of my career,
as part of a research project on identity development among Black college students,
a young Black woman who was taking an introductory science course at a very prestigious, predominantly
White institution told me a story about her effort to seek extra help after doing poorly
on one of the first exams for the year. When she appeared at the professor’s door, during
his stated office hours, he was meeting with a young White man in his office in what appeared
to her to be a very friendly and helpful conversation. She waited her turn outside the door, and
then, when she entered his office and began to explain her confusion he replied, “I can’t
help you.” What did he mean? Was he saying, “I can’t
help you now; I have to go pick up my kids”? Was he saying, “I can’t help you; you are
beyond my help?” Her understanding was that he was dismissing
her as beyond help, in contrast to what she had observed with the student before her.
She left his office, hurt, disappointed, only to continue to flounder in his course. Now the message doesn’t have to be so directly
communicated. Everyday interactions send an important message as well. Does the teacher
smile at you when you walk in the room? Does he or she greet you by name, and make an effort
to pronounce it correctly? Do you get called on in class when you raise your hand? If you
offer a wrong or incomplete answer, does the teacher prompt you to try again or expand
your response? These behaviors convey not only a certain acceptance and affirmation
of the person, but also, high expectations. And that matters, particularly to those who
enter the science laboratory or classroom carrying the baggage of a well-known legacy
of assumed intellectual inferiority. But it’s not just what the professor thinks
that matters. Certainly, if you were here last year at APA, I hope you had a chance
to hear Claude Steele review the research of his career around “stereotype threat.”
Claude Steele and other psychologists have identified another way that awareness of the
assumption of intellectual inferiority can impact Black students, as well as other marginalized
students, and that is the phenomenon of stereotype threat. As defined by Steele, stereotype threat is
the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype, or the fear of doing
something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype. The experiments that demonstrated
this effect are elegantly designed and convincingly clear. For example, in one of their experiments,
the researchers recruited high achieving Black and White students from Stanford, most of
whom were sophomores, and matched them according to their incoming SAT scores. The Black students
and White students had, presumably, similar capabilities based on similar SAT performance,
but then the researchers put them in inherently stressful testing situations. They gave them
a challenging 30 minute section from the GRE and the subject test in English literature,
an exam typically taken by college seniors (keep in mind, these are sophomores), and
they were told they were testing verbal ability. When the students’ scores were compared, what
they found was, under this high-pressured test taking circumstance where all the students
were being pushed beyond their current levels of achievement, White students, on average,
at Stanford, outperformed the Black students, even when they were evenly matched on SAT
scores going into the testing situation. So, of course, the question that Claude Steele
and others wanted to answer was, why is there this performance gap? Steele and his colleagues
hypothesized that when high-performing, high-achieving Black students were very invested in doing
good at school are put in a high pressured testing situation where intellectual ability
is believed to be relevant to the task, they are likely to [unclear] experience performance
anxiety associated with stereotype threat – performance anxiety which might suppress
the student’s performance. To test this hypothesis, they manipulated
the experimental design in a variety of ways. In the first example (which I described),
a key condition in the experiment was the fact that they introduced the test as diagnostic
of the students’ intellectual ability. Under this condition, a statistically significant
performance gap resulted between Black and White student performance. However, when they gave the test with a different
set of instructions, instructions which explicitly stated that the test was not a measure of
intellectual ability, but simply a laboratory test used to study approaches to problem solving,
the difference in Black student performance was dramatic. In the diagnostic version, Black
students performed one full standard deviation below the White students. In the non-diagnostic
version, the less pressured situation, Black and White students performed equally well. The racial stereotypes about Black academic
performance were made irrelevant by reframing the test and the task in this very simple
way. Even though the same difficult questions were being asked in both versions of the experiment,
in the non-diagnostic version, the performance anxiety was reduced and the performance improved. Steele’s work around stereotype threat has
been replicated many times, in lots of different contexts, but essentially the same effect
has been found over a number of different domains. For example, some of his graduate
students demonstrated that stereotype threat lowers the performance of talented female
math students on a challenging math test when the same test is presented as one in which
men and women, when it’s presented as a test of mathematical ability. But when it’s presented
as a test on which men and women are expected to perform equally well, thereby reducing
the threat of a gender stereotype, the women did indeed perform as well as the men, and
significantly better than the women in the other context.
Steele and his colleagues hypothesized that when stigmatized students failed to do as
well as their non-stigmatized counterparts in the same room, they were thinking about
the social group membership and the associated stigma, and such thoughts were at the root
of the performance anxiety. According to the work of Claude Steele, Geoffrey Cohen, and
his associates, stereotype threat is most likely to impact high achieving students who
are highly identified with school. The dilemma may be particularly acute when students feel
uncertain about their own ability or belonging. Many students experience this kind of uncertainty
during their first year of college, so stigmatized students entering a new academic environment
are particularly vulnerable to stereotype threat. Stigmatized students must face the
threatening possibility that, should their performance be inadequate, their failure will
only underscore the racial stereotype of alleged intellectual inferiority. So what does this look like in the real world,
outside the experimental laboratory? I want to share with you some quotes from
focus groups with first year students of color at a predominantly White college, collected
as part of a project I worked on to assess intellectual engagement in that environment. Said one of those students, “Sometimes you
wonder, because you’re a woman of color, or a person of color, if someone treats you a
certain way, is it because of what your race is, or is it something else? You don’t know.
You have this other factor that other people don’t have, and you’re wondering, ‘did she
act that way towards me because I’m Black, or did she act that way towards me for another
reason?’ Another talked about the burden of representing
her entire group. She said, “I have an increased sense of responsibility here not to fail.
I don’t know, just to represent myself as being a proper young lady. Maybe more because
I’m in a White atmosphere where most people here haven’t met another Black person, unless
they were on television. And you have to project, I don’t know, just a certain amount of respect
for yourself.” The visibility of one’s token status adds
to the pressure. Another said, “White students don’t realize that they don’t have to think
about being White all the time, but in situations you do have to think about being the only
Black one. Like in your class, and your professor’s gonna know that you skipped class. They always
know your name.” “I don’t know if it’s self-imposed,” another
said, “But I always feel like I have to prove that I’m not here because of affirmative action.
Like I always feel that I have to speak up in class; that I have to make myself visible
to make sure that the professor knows that I’m doing my work, and I know what’s going
on; that I have some creative intelligence. I feel like I constantly have to get the best
grade in the class, for me to feel better. And just prove myself, maybe even to the White
students who may be looking at me going, ‘Oh, she got here because of affirmative action.'” The pressure not to prove the stereotype of
intellectual inferiority means one cannot reveal weakness, or ask for assistance, even
when justified in doing so, as this young women explained, “I felt a lot of pressure,
too, never to ask for an extension. I wanted to be this super woman, where I never had
a conflict in a schedule, or I never got sick, or any of those normal things. And the first
time that I did ask for an extension, I felt really bad about it.” Another added, “I thought I would be confident
in my academic work, but I’ve really struggled with feeling comfortable going to my professors
and getting the help that I need.” It’s easy to see how stereotype threat might
be particularly acute for young women of color, especially if they are pursuing science in
predominately White environments. Imagine sitting in a physics class, perhaps the only
Black woman in the class. Confused about a concept, you need to ask a question, but at
the same time you’re painfully aware that some people think you don’t belong in that
class, people who look like you are not supposed to do physics. If you ask your question, you
may confirm their belief about you. If you don’t ask the question, you will not get the
clarification you need, and you may, indeed, perform at a lower level, as a result. It
is a catch-22 situation. What is hopeful about our new understanding
about stereotype threat and related theories is that they can guide us to change how we
teach, and what we say, not just for college students, but for all of our students. As
Steele puts it, “Although stereotypes held by the larger society may be hard to change,
it is possible to create educational niches in which negative stereotypes are not felt
to apply, and which permit a sense of trust that would otherwise be difficult to sustain.” Receiving honest feedback you can trust as
unbiased is critical to reducing stereotype threat, and improving academic performance.
How you establish that trust, with the possibility of stereotypes swirling around, is the kind
of question he tried to answer. And the key to doing this seems to be found in 1) clearly
communicating standards, and 2) clearly communicating assurance of belief in the students’ capacity
to reach those standards. Or, as I like to say, “This is important. You can do it. I
won’t give up on you.” This idea that there’s a high standard, but also a high expectation,
of the students’ ability to reach that standard. Again, the work of Claude Steele, this time
joined by Geoffrey Cohen, offers important insights. To investigate how a teacher might
gain the trust of a student when giving feedback across racial lines, they created a scenario
in which Black and White Stanford University students were asked to write essays about
a favorite teacher. The students were told that the essays would be considered for publication
in a journal about teaching, and that they would receive feedback from a reviewer who
they were led to believe was White. A Polaroid snapshot was taken of each student and attached
to the essay as it was turned in, signaling to the students that the reviewer would know
what their race or ethnicity was. Several days later the students returned to receive
the reviewer’s comments, with the opportunity to revise and resubmit the essay. What was
varied in the experiment was how the feedback was delivered. When the feedback was given in a constructive
but critical manner, Black students were more suspicious than White students that the feedback
was racially biased. If you’re wondering what’s that, you know we’ve all done it; “Here’s
your essay. Here are all the things that are wrong with it.” And, when you get that feedback,
you ask yourself, or the concern was that the Black students would ask themselves, “Is
this really my bad essay, or was this the bias of my reviewer.” What they found was that under that condition,
Black students were less likely than the White students to rewrite the essay for further
consideration. The same was true when the critical feedback was buffered by an opening
statement praising the essay, such as, “There were many good things about your essay.” Now, here’s what’s wrong with that. Right?
However, when the feedback was introduced by a statement that conveyed a high standard
(reminding the writer that the essay had to be of publishable quality), and high expectations
(assuring the student of the reviewer’s belief that with effort and attention to the feedback,
the standard could be met), under that condition, which might have sounded something like this,
“Just to remind you, this essay is for publication, therefore, it really needs to be strong. I
think you’ve got a great beginning here. If you work on it, I’m quite sure you can reach
this standard. Now here’s what wrong with it.” When the feedback was presented in that
way, the Black students not only responded positively by revising the essays and resubmitting
them, but they did so at a higher rate than the White students in the study. In short,
they persisted. The particular combination of the explicit
communication of high standards and the demonstrated assurance of the teacher’s belief in the student’s
ability to succeed (as evidenced by the effort to provide detailed, constructive feedback)
was a powerful intervention for Black students. Describing this two-pronged approach as “wise
criticism,” Cohen and Steele demonstrated that is was an exceedingly effective way to
generate the trust needed to motivate Black students to make their best effort. Even though
the criticism indicated that a major revision of the essay would be required to achieve
the publication standard, Black students who received that “wise criticism” felt ready
to take on the challenge, and did. Indeed, “they were more motivated than any other group
of students in the study,” Cohen and Steele concluded, “as if this combination of high
standards and assurance was like water on parched land, a much needed but seldom received
balm.” So what then are the practical implications
of this research? What are some specific strategies for teachers, mentors, and other adults to
consider in an effort to reduce stereotype threat and increase trust in cross-racial
interactions? A particularly important question when we recognize that most of our teachers
(K-12 and even at the higher ed. level) are White, and certainly in public schools, often
female. The first is to make standards for evaluation
explicit. Establish high standards and make clear to students what the criteria are for
meeting them. When standards are made explicit, students are more likely to trust and respond
to relevant criticism. Emphasize “effective effort” as the key to success, rather than
“innate ability.” So, what do I mean by that? Simply this, many
students, like many teachers, believe their intelligence, or lack of it, is a fixed, unchanging
characteristic, that well established idea that we talked about at the beginning. Years
of family members, friends, and teachers remarking (“What a smart boy you are. What a smart girl
you are.”), certainly reinforces this personal theory of intelligence. The alternate view
of intelligence as changeable, as something that can be developed, is less commonly fostered,
but it can be. Educator Verna Ford, who works with teachers
in professional development, has summed up this alternate theory for use with young children
quite succinctly by saying, “Think you can – work hard – get smart.” Educational psychologist
Carol Dweck’s research suggests that those young people who hold a belief in fixed intelligence
see academic setbacks as an indicator of limited ability (I’m not good at that). They are highly
invested in appearing smart, and consequently avoid those tasks which might suggest otherwise.
Rather than exerting more effort to improve their performance, they are likely to conclude,
“I’m not good at that subject” and move on to something else. On the other hand, students who have the view
of intelligence as malleable are more likely to respond to academic setbacks as a sign
that more effort is needed, and then exert that effort. They are more likely to face
challenges head on, rather than avoid them in an effort to preserve a fixed definition
of oneself as smart. The theory of intelligence as malleable, something that expands as a
result of effective effort, fosters an academic resilience that serves its believers well.
It leads to persistence. Researchers Aronson, Fried, and Good wondered
if a personal theory of intelligence as malleable might foster a beneficial academic resilience
for students of color vulnerable to stereotype threat. Here’s where the two ideas come together.
Specifically, they speculated that if Black students believed that their intellectual
capacity was not fixed, but expandable through their own effort, the negative stereotypes
that others hold about their intellectual ability might be less damaging to their academic
performance. To introduce this alternate view of intelligence,
they designed a study in which Black and White college students were recruited to serve as
pen pal mentors to disadvantaged elementary school students. The task of the college students
was to write letters of encouragement to their young mentees, urging them to do their best
in school. However, one group of college students was instructed to tell their mentees to think
of intelligence as something that was expandable through effort, and in preparation for writing
the letters they were given compelling information, drawn from contemporary research in psychology
and neuroscience, about how the brain itself could be modified and expanded by new learning. The real subjects of the study, however, were
not the pen pals, but the college students themselves. Although the letter writing was
done in a single session, the college students exposed to the malleable theory of intelligence
seemed to benefit from exposure to that paradigm. Both Black and White students who learned
about the malleability of intelligence improved their grades more than did students who did
not receive this information over the course of that semester. The benefit was even more
striking for Black students who reported enjoying academics more, saw academics as more important,
and had significantly higher grades at the end of the academic quarter than those Black
students who had not been exposed to this brief, but powerful, intervention. But what worked with college also worked with
seventh graders. Carol Dweck and her students created an opportunity for some seventh grade
students in New York City to read and discuss a scientific article about how intelligence
develops, and its malleability. A comparable group of seventh graders did not learn this
information, but read about memory strategies (memorization strategies). Those students
who learned about the malleability of intelligence subsequently demonstrated higher academic
motivation, better academic behavior, and higher grades in mathematics than those who
had learned about memory. Interestingly, girls who have been shown to have been vulnerable
to gender stereotypes about math performance did equal to or better than boys in math following
the intelligence is malleable intervention, while the girls in the other group performed
well below the boys in math. As was the case with the study with the college students,
the intervention with the seventh graders was quite brief (in this case, only three
hours), yet the impact was significant. Embracing a theory of intelligence is something
that can develop, that can be expanded through effective effort, is something that all of
us can do to counteract the legacy of lowered expectations due to racial and gender bias,
reducing the impact of stereotype threat and increasing the achievement of all of our students.
Raising our collective expectations, combating stereotype threat with honest and effectively
delivered feedback, emphasizing effective effort as the key to success, each of these
strategies leads to academic persistence. So why do we need to talk about race? I hope
that I have shown that the dynamics of race in a society in which racist ideology is still
deeply embedded, though not always apparent, can affect the achievement of students of
color. Cohen and Steele’s work on effective feedback and the other research discussed
above (Carol Dweck’s work around effective effort and understanding the malleability
of intelligence), points to the possibility of counteracting its effects. But how can we develop these and other strategies
if we’re not able to talk freely about the continuing effects of race and racism? How
can we overcome the unconscious impact of internalized stereotypes if we are not able
to bring them to consciousness through dialogue? How can we effectively challenge the disinvestment
in public education without acknowledging that it is the education of low income children
(increasingly children of color) that we are leaving behind? We have to open the door for this important
dialogue so we can raise the roof on expectations and achievement. This dialogue among adults
is important, of course, not just for academic performance, but also for the effective preparation
of all of our students who live in an increasingly multiracial, multiethnic world. We have to
raise our expectations for our students and for our teachers, and we have to be willing
to invest in both. If we are to be a nation [unclear] ready to wake up running in every
school and classroom, this is the conversation I think we need to have. And fundamentally,
it means having a conversation about race. Thanks very much for your attention.

6 thoughts on “Connecting the Dots: How Race in America’s Classrooms Affects Achievement

  1. Race is bound to affect 'achievement', because different races have different mentalities, as is evinced by their different expressions/'cultures'. What is 'achievement', therefore? Is it the understanding, exploitation, and furtherence of white culture? Or of other cultures? Why call white culture 'standard', when it is clearly as unique as any other? It is white, and so it naturally suits white people best.

  2. The 'dots' u r 'connecting' r imaginary. White ppl naturally will achieve better at learning their own culture, as it's natural to them. This is as far as any 'racism' goes! To engineer a situation of equality of achievement in schools wd b t hold whites back, which wd b a deliberate act of harm, to children! The resultant 'equality' wd b a reflection if this wilful retardation of white kids. N y? T forcefit white culture into other, nonwhite mentalities. That's sick, violent, and perverted!

  3. Great speech. It might be difficult to relate to those who haven't been through similar experiences. These are exactly the issues I'm currently struggling with. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Why is it that all the ignorant commenters won't allow others to respond to their comments? "White ppl naturally will achieve better at learning their own culture, as it's natural to them.This is as far as any 'racism' goes!?" Let me educate you on the definition of racism, which you clearly don't understand. Racism describes a system of advantage and disadvantages based on race. Because the system is created to benefits the white majority, naturally white people are set up to succeed. Minorities do not benefit from this system thus disadvantaging minorities from the start. More importantly, using big words that you probably looked up on dictionary.com makes you look even more ignorant to the facts. The mainstream culture define the standards in society at which each person must conform to. Since "white culture" is the mainstream culture in the U.S. "white culture" is setting the standard for success and also defines what achievement and success looks like in the U.S. Furthermore, "white culture" is setting up the system of achievement and success in the U.S. which is part of the system of advantages and disadvantages that restricts minorities and proves that racism is alive and well in the U.S. Anyone questioning my comment should re-watch this video with an open mind, read Dr. Beverly Tatum's book, "Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria"  and watch, "Dear White People." #Imjustsayin

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