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A Boost to Minority Achievement through Writing?


What kinds of classroom lessons and activities can improve the confidence, and ultimately the performance of minority students? A new study suggests that a series of structured writing assignments can play a strong role.

According to a new research article published in the journal Science, African-American middle school students benefited academically and narrowed the achievement gap between them and their white peers, after being asked to produce written essays, which the authors describe as "self-affirmations." The 7th graders studied were asked to reflect on important personal values, such a relationships with family or friends, their musical interests, and other topics.

The new study reports two years of results for those students, and follows up on a series of earlier, preliminary findings. The authors found that African-American students who participated in the study, particularly those who were in the lowest percentile of student performance, made gains in their grades after taking part in the writing exercises, compared to a control group. Overall, all the student groups taking part in the study saw their grades decline, which the authors describe as a common trend in middle school. But with the intervention, the decline became significantly less steep for African-Americans, easing the gap between them and their white peers, not just over one term, but throughout middle school. The study was a randomized field experiment, involving three different cohorts of students, ages 12 to 14.

I recently wrote about federal data on achievement gaps between black and white students in math, even among those who both report earning "A" grades in school. Why did the "self-affirmation" writing exercises appear to have an effect? The authors say that black students were particularly vulnerable to early failures, which sap their confidence, early in school.

"For them, early failure may have confirmed that the stereotype was in play...as an indicator of their ability to thrive in school," they explain in the paper. "By shoring up self-integrity at this time, the affirmation helped maintain their sense of adequacy, and interrupted the cycle in which early poor performance influenced later performance and psychological state."

African American students experience must fight through anxiety over stereotypes that they will be low-performers, which in turn hurts their academic performance, according to the authors, who included Geoffrey L. Cohen of the University of Colorado. A well-timed intervention, even a very subtle one, can have an strong effect on minority students, the authors suggest.

Can readers—teachers, curriculum directors and others—who have tried different strategies to help struggling minority students attest to the truth of the researchers' finding?


This research finding is not surprising. In Mazlow's hierarchy of basic needs, affirmation is very basic. Help students feel comfortable about themselves and they recognize their worth and abilities.


I changed the language in the above blog post to note something important. All of the student groups evaluated in this study saw their performance decline over middle school. The difference for the African-American children was that, after going through the writing exercises, their performance declined significantly less -- and the achievement gap between them and whites narrowed. The process of writing "interrupted a recursive process of worsening performances," for the black students, as the authors put it.

Shelby Steele, White Guilt
New York: HarperCollins, 2006, pp. 66-67

If a young black boy cannot dribble well when he comes out to play basketball, no one will cast his problem as an injustice. No one will worry about his single-parent home, the legacy of slavery that still touches his life, or the inherent racial bias in a game invented by a white man. His deficiency will be allowed to be what it is—poor dribbling. And he will be told to “tighten his game,” which simply means to practice more. Very likely his peers will taunt him mercilessly, and even adults will give him no hugs to assuage his self-esteem. Very likely he will live through all this without the consultations of a father. Moreover, the standard of excellence for dribbling will be so high that many will not reach it and nothing less than virtuosity will satisfy it. When and if he meets this standard, he will be told “You bad” even by his competitors. This expression, of course, means its literal opposite: that he has at last earned entrée into a fraternity of nothing other than excellence. Surely he will feel proud of himself as a result.
But if this boy’s problem is reading or writing rather than basketball, white guilt will certainly prevent even a modified version of this natural human process from occurring. Career-hungry academics will appear in his little world, and they will argue that his weaknesses reflect the circuitous workings of racism. His reading and writing problems will be seen to follow from the countless racial and psychological determinisms that make it impossible to ask that he and his family be fully responsible for overcoming his problems.
The boy will not be asked to truly work harder, nor will he be guided in the mastery of sentence structure, parts of speech, and verb tenses. No one will righteously insist that he speak correctly (as certain people once did for me). Yet he will be an object of abstract compassion for everyone. And permeating his classroom, like a stalled weather pattern, will be a foggy academic relativism in which scholastic excellence is associated with elitism, and rote skill development with repression. Yet just beyond the window of his classroom, on the pockmarked basketball court with the netless and bent hoop, another weather pattern prevails. On that court almost nothing is forgiven, and he will be “blamed” and held entirely responsible for all his deficiencies. And all through the torpor of a day structured to spare his feelings around reading, writing, and arithmetic, he will long to be on the other side of that window, where everything is asked of him.

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