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Apr. 16 2009 - 10:46 pm | 19 views | 1 recommendation | 1 comment

15 Minutes To Close the Achievement Gap?

Typical elementary school classroom.

Image via Wikipedia

Can a 15 minute writing exercise help close the achievement gap between minority and white students? It may sound a bit crazy, but it’s science — no, really, it was printed in Science.

The study, a follow up to one from 2006, was pretty simple. I’ll let Not Exactly Rocket Science explain the design:

[The researchers] originally asked a group of white and black seventh-graders to write about a topic that they felt was important – from having good friends, to sense of humour, to musical ability – and why it mattered to them. The idea was to encourage the students to affirm their own abilities and their integrity, as a sort of psychological vaccine against the negative effects of stereotypes. As a control, a second group of students had to write about something they felt was not important, and why it mattered to someone else. Teachers, incidentally, were never told which student was completing which assignment and they were largely kept in the dark about the exercises and the aims of the experiments.

That was the 2006 experiment. This was the follow up:

He revisited the students again and managed to reconvene with 93% of them (the rest had either moved or were ill). Over the next year, they did 2-3 booster versions of the original exercise. They wrote about a different value or delved more deeply into one they had named earlier. The control group simply described a part of their daily routine. In year two, only half of the students who wrote about themselves were given more booster exercises, while the others carried on as usual.

What’s surprising is that it… worked. In the first study, the black students who wrote about themselves got better grades than the ones who wrote about someone else. White students, meanwhile, were basically unaffected. The gap between the two groups was cut by 40%.

The follow up study, with the booster exercises, found that the effect was persistent — the black students who wrote the self-related essays raised their GPAs a quarter of a grade point. The lowest achievers improved the most.

What this shows is rather consistent with other findings about “priming” students with cues related to their race before a test — it can lead black students to do worse, presumably by reminding them of negative stereotypes about their academic performance.

It also reminds me of what many successful charter schools do as far as trying to change the largely minority student populations’ expectations about how they should be doing in school. KIPP, for instance, places a tremendous amount of emphasis — unnecessary with white students — that they are absolutely expected to go to college.

Then there’s this chant, which they do at Amistad Academy in New Haven, CT:

“Who are we proud to be?”

“Amistad Academy!”

“And why are we here?”

“To push ourselves, to learn, to achieve our very best.”

“And who is responsible for your success?”

“We are responsible for our actions; we control our destinies.”

“And what will it take to succeed?”

“Work, hard work!”

The Amistad chant is more focused on pledging to work hard than on affirming one’s worth and abilities. But the basic idea in all of this is that some students need to be repetitively primed to expect good behavior and high achievement from themselves. It’s not drilling the multiplication tables, but it can be damn important to helping them succeed.

Instituting this kind of essay in low-performing schools won’t end the achievement gap. But understanding this principle and finding various ways to implement it could do a tremendous amount of good.


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  1. collapse expand

    This almost acts like an explanation of how an inspired teacher, one who intuitively understands this principle and how to apply it (and teacher lore is rife with examples), really can and does make a huge difference in the lives of the kids he or she teaches. It is exciting to imagine just this information — a principle so simple — put to use by all of our teachers, whether they be pedagogically gifted, or not.

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    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

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