Stereotype Threat

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In July 2009, REL Southeast at SERVE Center, UNC, Greensboro,  published the Issues and Answers brief for the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) titled Reducing stereotype threat in the classroom: A Review of social-psychological intervention studies on improving the achievement of Black students.  The authors tell us that “stereotype threat arises from a fear among members of a group of reinforcing negative stereotypes about the intellectual ability of the group” (p.i).  Without intervention, stereotype threat has a negative effect on student performance for members of such groups.

The brief considers only “rigorous research” and finds support for the following three classroom social-psychological strategies for reducing stereotype threat: (1) reinforce for students the idea that intelligence is expandable and, like a muscle, grows stronger when worked; (2) teach students that their difficulties in school are often part of a normal “learning curve” or adjustment process, rather than something unique to them or their racial group; and (3) help students reflect on other values in their lives beyond school that are sources of self-worth for them.  The report also notes several limitations of the study that are of great importance.  First, the report notes that the underlying search was very focused and included only those interventions that have been tried in real school settings.  This means that there may be other equally or even more effective interventions out there.  Second, the studies were small in scope and their replicability is unknown.   Thus, the authors urge readers to share ideas for reducing stereotype threat even if they are in the developmental stages.

The authors also make some important concluding points.  First, they suggests educators will need to adapt the strategies for their own contexts so as not to lose the spirit of the interventions.  Second, they suggest the timing of the intervention might be critical (one study focused on 7th grade students) as there may be “windows of opportunity for influencing student attitudes and beliefs” (p.13) and interventions might be more effective at particular times during the school year.  Perhaps the most telling point, however, is the last one.  The authors tell us that no social-psychological intervention can make up for lack of learning, motivate unmotivated students, or turn a low-performing and underfunded school into a model school.  They go on to say:

“More generally, the interventions would not work if there were not broader positive forces in the school environment (committed staff, quality curriculum) operating to facilitate student learning and performance. Without these broader positive forces, social-psychological interventions, while potentially reducing psychological threat levels for some students, would be unlikely to boost student learning and achievement. However, when these broader positive forces are in place, social-psychological interventions such as those reported on here may help Black and other minority students to overcome stereotype threat and improve their performance in school” (p.14)

Congratulations to REL Southwest for getting such an important Issues and Answers brief published.  However, let us not lose sight that these interventions do not directly challenge the system that perpetuates negative stereotypes about the intellectual ability of these groups in the first place.  Rather, they place the burden on students of color and the educators who care about their achievement rather than on the system that makes such interventions necessary in the first place.  Thus, stereotype threat interventions are a short-term strategy that may be part of a longer-term strategy to disrupt systemic racism and other social forces that serve current power structures.  They are not in and of themselves sufficient to transform education.

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