Students across the nation are taking the dreaded exams mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act this month. Now there's a study that appears to show that a simple one-hour exercise can halve the racial achievement gap, while also making minority students healthier and happier.
Although this claim sounds as preposterous as a pitch for a potion to cure baldness or to erase wrinkles, it's made in a recent issue of the journal Science.
The researchers, psychologists Geoffrey Cohen and Gregory Walton, don't claim that their intervention is a miracle cure for the problem of 17-year-old black and Hispanic students whose average reading and math skills are comparable to 13-year-old white students. But their experiment confirms an important, if often ignored, fact: Success in school doesn't necessarily result from ceaselessly drilling students to prep them for achievement tests. Whether they believe they have the brainpower and the social skills to make it in the achievement-oriented world of school can shape how well they actually do.
Minority students are especially prone to the fear of failing. As early as kindergarten, nearly a quarter of African-American boys — three times the percentage of whites — are convinced that they lack the innate ability to succeed in school. These students do badly, their fears are confirmed, and the cycle repeats itself.
The experiment reported in Science tested whether this life script could be changed. College freshmen read the results of what they were told was a survey of upperclassmen, together with ostensible firsthand reports of navigating college life. The stories detailed how, at first, the juniors and seniors had felt snubbed by their fellow students and intimidated by their professors, but their situation had improved as they gained self-confidence.
The freshmen were asked to write essays explaining how their own experiences dovetailed with those of the upperclassmen; they then crafted short speeches that were videotaped, supposedly to be shown to the next generation of undergraduates. The exercise took about an hour. Meanwhile, a control group was reading and writing about an unrelated topic.
This simple experience didn't affect how well white students in the study performed academically. That's not surprising, because whites aren't hostage to stereotypes of inferiority. But it appeared to change the arc of the minority students' college lives. Over the next three years their grade-point averages steadily rose, compared with the GPAs of a similar group of black undergraduates: the control group who didn't participate in the "social belonging" exercise.
At graduation, 22 percent of the minority participants, but only 5 percent of the control group, were in the top quarter of their class. What's more, they were substantially less likely to have become sick, and more likely to report being happy, during their undergraduate years than the other minority students.
What's the explanation? The researchers suggest that "the intervention robbed adversity of its symbolic meaning for African-Americans, untethering their sense of belonging from daily hardship." All these students had the usual ups and downs while at college, but the minority freshmen who wrote and spoke about overcoming adversity were better able to cope, apparently because they saw adversity as a transient phenomenon, not a life sentence.
In an earlier study of minority middle school students, Walton demonstrated that an even less intense experience could work wonders. Simply writing an essay about a personally important value, like relationships with good friends, seems to have changed attitudes toward school and, consequently, how well the essay writers did in a particular course.
Let's be clear: These experiments don't mean that schools should stop trying to improve the quality of their teaching by relying on lessons in self-confidence. "The intervention is like turning on a light switch," says Cohen. "It seems miraculous when the lights go on, but it all hinges on the infrastructure (the academic program) that's already in place."
Here's what is probably happening: The writing exercises altered students' understanding of the possible. If they did better academically, their teachers observed the changes and responded positively. Over time, this self-reinforcing cycle of success replaced the old pattern of failure.
There are legitimate grounds for debate over how much importance should attach to standardized test results. But whatever side of that debate you're on, the research findings invite a new appreciation of why "soft skills" powerfully affect success in school.
David L. Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California Berkeley, is the author of "Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children's Lives and America's Future." © 2011 Los Angeles Times