Tuesday, November 13, 2018


Decades of research have shown that negative stereotypes have a major impact on people's performance and achievement. The theory that best explains these deleterious effects--stereotype threat--argues that the targets of negative stereotypes have to fight against a potentially disabling dose of anxiety and self-doubt when they are in a situation that evokes the stereotype. Typical examples might include a black student taking a scholastic aptitude test, a woman starting a STEM-related job, or an older person faced with a physically or mentally demanding task.

Happily, a growing body of research has shown that seemingly small interventions can reduce or in some cases even eliminate the impacts of stereotype threat. Many of these interventions focus on creating a different mind-set, for example by removing stimuli that evoke the stereotype, writing an essay about one's own family and character at the beginning of a school year, or reinforcing the idea that intelligence is malleable. Some of these positive effects last far beyond a single test or challenge, in some cases improving students' grades for an entire year.

For black children we can now add the potentially lifelong impact of having even one black teacher early in life.

 Graduates--Bennet College, 2008

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University and American University utilized student data derived from Tennessee's STAR class-size reduction program, which started in 1986. They found that black children who had a black teacher in kindergarten were 14 to 18 percent more likely to enter college. Having two black teachers in their first two school years boosted children's chances of enrolling in college by a remarkable 32 percent compared to peers who did not have those black role models.

The researchers believe that having one or more black teachers enhances black children's sense of what is possible and worthwhile for them.

One way in which having a same-race role model may have played out is by inculcating "grit" or determination, traits that are as important to achievement in school and life as knowledge or cognitive skills. The researchers found that black middle-school students who had had a black teacher in their first years of school were 10 percent more likely to receive teacher comments such as "persistent," "made and effort," or "tried to finish difficult work" than peers who had had only white teachers early on.

Having at least one black teacher as an early role model may be particularly important for boys. Using data from North Carolina, the researchers found that for boys, having had a black teacher in elementary school reduced the high school drop out rate by one-third.

"The role model effect seems to show that having one teacher of the same race is enough to give a student the ambition to achieve, for example, to take a college entrance exam," said Nicholas Papageorge, an assistant professor of economics at Johns Hopkins. "But if going to college is the goal, having two teachers of the same race helps even more."

In addition to the impact of having same-race role models, the researchers found that teachers' expectations also influence children's long-term aspirations and success. Black teachers, it turns out, tend to have significantly higher expectations for black students than white teachers do. Those expectations, in turn, can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Since the vast majority of teachers are white, even if they cannot be same-race roll models to black children, it falls to them not to under-estimate the potential of their black students, but to assume and convey the belief that they have the same potential for learning, achievement and success as white children.

"While we make efforts to find and train new black teachers," says Papageorge, "we also need to educate white teachers about implicit bias, teach them to be culturally competent, and show them how not to exacerbate these existing achievement gaps."


You can access the original research article here.


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