Some readers will undoubtedly be surprised, or even incredulous, that a 15-min intervention can reduce the racial achievement gap by 40%. Yet this is precisely what Cohen et al. (1) report on page 1307 of this issue. African American seventh graders randomly assigned to write about their most important values achieved significantly better end-of-semester grades than students in a control condition. How can this be?
In each study, people in the treatment conditions achieved better grades than people in the control conditions. These increases were modest, averaging .29 on a grade-point average (GPA) scale (where A = 4, B = 3, and so on; see the table). Nonetheless, these gains are impressive, given that grades were assessed from several weeks to several months after the interventions.
From the EurekAlert public release:
The African-American students who completed the in-class assignment improved their end-of-term grades by three-tenths of a grade point, closing the gap by 40 percent, according to Cohen. The assignment had no impact on white students' grades. While the study results are encouraging, Cohen said he isn't suggesting the findings to be a "silver bullet."
"We don't really know how these results will transfer to other schools and areas in the country, or know conclusively what the psychological mechanism behind this is," Cohen said. "However, it may turn out that if we intervene earlier, the gap could be reduced even more."
As an example of how chronic stress affects performance, Cohen used a workplace analogy where two good friends work together and one of them tells the other that the boss may not like him.
"While both employees may feel workplace stress, the one who thinks the boss may not like him is going to feel a higher level of stress," Cohen said. "He may ask himself, 'Is this constructive criticism from the boss or is the boss biased against me?' Over time, the chronic stress of this social situation would probably negatively affect his job performance," he said.
See also White-black IQ gap has shrunk in the United States.
Science Vol. 313. no. 5791, pp. 1307 - 1310
Reducing the Racial Achievement Gap: A Social-Psychological Intervention
Geoffrey L. Cohen, Julio Garcia, Nancy Apfel, Allison Master
Two randomized field experiments tested a social-psychological intervention designed to improve minority student performance and increase our understanding of how psychological threat mediates performance in chronically evaluative real-world environments. We expected that the risk of confirming a negative stereotype aimed at one's group could undermine academic performance in minority students by elevating their level of psychological threat. We tested whether such psychological threat could be lessened by having students reaffirm their sense of personal adequacy or "self-integrity." The intervention, a brief in-class writing assignment, significantly improved the grades of African American students and reduced the racial achievement gap by 40%. These results suggest that the racial achievement gap, a major social concern in the United States, could be ameliorated by the use of timely and targeted social-psychological interventions.