My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

One Approach to Reducing the Achievement Gap

There has been a lot of discussion on my blog over the last week about how to reduce the achievement gap -- and whether setting high expectations is at all effective (or completely inadequate?) and whether providing additional support to disadvantaged students is the best (only?) approach. As anyone reading my blog by now knows, I want data ... I don't want anecdote or intuition, and as a social psychologist, I've read a lot of research showing that sometimes programs that "seem" like they would be effective can backfire (e.g., early work on programs specifically designed to help support students of color succeed in college revealed that these programs were stigmatizing, by giving students the message that they needed remedial help to succeed -- and thus such approaches were found to be not particularly effective, and in some cases, even harmful). So, I'm always eager to learn about programs that have been proven to work (as in, with DATA) -- and here is one (just published in April 2009 in Science) about a program that seems quite effective in raising achievement in African American students -- in a way that some might find surprising.

Writing About Values Boosts Grades, Shrinks Achievement Gap

A short self-affirming writing exercise that took only about an hour of class time boosted struggling black junior high school students' grade point average by nearly half a point over two years, according to a new study. The surprising result, published this week in the journal Science, suggests a new way to combat the persistent achievement gap in grades, test scores and graduation rates between black and white students, according to the researchers. "The intervention is relatively brief, but it's powerful in a lot of ways," says Geoffrey Cohen, a social psychologist at the University of Colorado.

Cohen and his colleagues followed more than 400 seventh-grade students at a suburban public school in Connecticut. The school's population was about half black and half white. In a series of 15-minute writing assignments, the researchers asked half of the students to complete a self-affirming exercise: to choose from a list of values -- such as relationships with friends and family, athletic ability and smarts -- and write about the value most important to them. A control group was asked to write about why the values they ranked as unimportant might matter to someone else.

In early results published in 2006, the researchers found that the exercise reduced the achievement gap between black and white students by 40 percent over one term. Researchers said the exercises benefitted low-achieving black students the most, while they appeared to have little impact on white students or already high-achieving black students.

In the new study, Cohen and his colleagues tracked the students until the end of eighth grade. They found that the benefits for low-achieving black students continued for the entire two years -- students who completed the self-affirmation exercise raised their GPA by four-tenths of a point compared to the control group. They were also less likely to need remedial work or to repeat a grade -- 5 percent as compared to 18 percent of the control group. The intervention continued to have no effect on white students and high-achieving black students.

That such a small intervention could have such big effects "surprises most people to the point that some people I know didn't believe the initial finding," says psychologist Richard Nisbett, an expert on achievement and intelligence at the University of Michigan. "But what makes it believable to me is that, as a social psychologist, I've learned that 'dinky' things sometimes have big effects."

The exercise is based on a tenet of psychological research called stereotype threat. Previous studies have found that when people are reminded of negative stereotypes about their racial, gender or other group, the stress of worrying about confirming those stereotypes can negatively affect their performance. The self-affirmation exercise, by reminding students about what is really important to them, could help reduce that stress, the researchers suggest.

And by timing the intervention to occur at a crucial period such as the beginning of middle school, Cohen says, the benefits could compound. "Performance is recursive," he says. "If you start off at something and you're stressed and do badly, then that makes you do worse the next time. And that seems to happen a lot in middle school, where you see this downward spiral [...] By just tweaking [the students] a bit you could set them on a totally different trajectory."

But Cohen added the intervention is not a panacea to solve all students' educational woes. "We have no illusions that this is a silver bullet," he says, "our philosophy is that the more positive forces in a child's life, the better. That includes good teachers, good homes [...] and then also psychological interventions."

He also says that there is much work to be done before the exercise can be scaled up for use in more schools. For example, the researchers want to study how the intervention would work in more racially homogenous schools, and whether it would matter if teachers knew the purpose of the exercise.

The researchers also want to better understand how, precisely, the intervention works, and what it changes about the students' academic experience. "I think that if we could answer those kinds of questions the findings would be less mysterious, because we would know what the engines are in the school that make this intervention take off," says Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, a psychologist at Columbia University and a co-author of the study.

But Purdie-Vaughns says that as a black parent, as well as a researcher, she sees the research as crucial. "As the parent of an African-American child, I would consider giving my child this worksheet before the first day of class," she says.

---- By Lea Winerman, Online NewsHour With Jim Lehrer


Anonymous said...

A suburban public school in Connecticut with an innovative program to reduce the achievement gap? Probably West Hartford, home of Dr. Sklarz.

Anonymous said...

Give it a rest!

Anonymous said...

"I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical."

This quote that you use in your blog opening statement, appears contradictory to your overriding mentality that the Amherst schools should compare favorably with so many other schools.

If you really believed in rebellion you wouldn't be endlessly bringing in information about how we don't stack up with all of those places you so clearly envy.

What gives?

If you really believed in rebellion, it wouldn't matter what the other enviable schools are doing. What would matter, and what you would be shouting about is the quality of education unto itself, no matter what anyone else does. You do discuss quality, but you as yet can't do it without going to your fav upper middle clas to upper class towns.

A big part of your game is competing for those precious few spots in the elite colleges. How can your kid compete if Amherst doesn't play the mainstream game of chasing the AP? That's rebellion?

Clearly, rebellion works for you when you see yourself as a rebel, but god help any teacher or school that rebels against your vision.

Oh, you didn't mean rebellion in that way. I see.

In fact, it is painfully obvious for everyone to see.

Just another nimby "liberal."

Anonymous said...

Anon 2:25: I think the 'rebellion' is in challenging the school committee's lack of inquiry into budget decisions and passive acceptance of school policies. Catherine is demanding explanations and holding the committee accountable for its decisions. You call her a 'nimby liberal' for wanting our schools to be among the best (and the school districts she looks to for comparison are excellent.) I don't know what 'nimby liberal' means; it sounds nasty. It's crazy that wanting kids to be well-educated gets a person called names.

Anonymous said...


In case you have not seen this, below is a reference to an article that I found quite informative on the power of contextual cues to affect human performance. The priming experiments seem to me quite revealing.

Bargh, J.A. and Chartrand, T.L.: “The Unbearable Automaticity of Being” in American Psychologist, 54 (7), July 1999, pp. 462-479


Rick said...

The article referenced in Science, as well as CS’s push for higher standards, focus on just one aspect of the achievement gap: that lower achieving student may be doing so because they think they can’t achieve.

That is a very important component of closing the achievement gap, but not the only component, and I get concerned that folks in the ACE/CS camp on this think this is the only answer, because really it’s all they talk about.

But rather that argue over that, how about getting data on why kids in Amherst (not some other place) become underachievers? I would start by asking those students. Perhaps this is already being done?

BTW the Wikipedia article on the Achievement Gap is a really nice summary:

Irv Rhodes said...

I am always amazed when new research rediscovers old research. During the 70's and early 80's a great movement was underway in which the psychology of positive self concept and its manifestation in the classroom was in full bloom.Addditionally, Og Mandino's book "Greatest Secret In The World" was sweeping the self help section of book stores, an example from the book "I read the scroll marked 11, and reviewed the paragraph for the week, I greeted this day with love in my heart; I praised my enemies; I thought "I love you" silently to all I met and I loved myself enough to protect my body from overindulgence and my mind from evil and despair" Additionally, from the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by S.Covey "" If the only vision we have of ourselves comes from the social mirror--from the current social paradigm and from the opinion, perceptions, and paradigms of the people around us--our view of ourselves is like the reflection in the crazy mirror room at the carnival". The point positive self affirmations have proven and are effective the previous research that cast disperions on the outcomes of the use of such techniques focused mainly on already successful upper and middle class people. Irv Rhodes

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 3:33 - well, the researchers were affiliated with Yale, so I'd guess the school was near New Haven! But I think it would be really interesting to try this very brief exercise at our MS.

Anonymous 2:25 - if you read the quote, it decribes change in the political world ... not the educational system. As a college professor, I see first-hand (even at an elite school like Amherst, in which all of the kids have been strong students in high school, tested well, etc.) the HUGE differences in preparation that kids arrive with, and the consquences of that preparation on their ability to succeed. That matters -- we are not preparing our kids to compete (for jobs, majors, admissions to college) just with other kids from Amherst -- they are competing with kids from other schools in the US and indeed beyond. So, like it or not, it matters if our kids are well-prepared, and that means whether they are as well-prepared as kids in other districts. Right now, kids in our high school can't take AP Chemistry -- so, inherently they will be LESS prepared than other kids from other schools who have had this class. Our kids can't take AP Statistics -- again, our kids are thus LESS prepared. This is one of the reasons I pushed hard for maintaining world language in 7th/8th ... sure, we could be "rebellious" and just start language in 9th grade, but our kids would then be LESS prepared than other kids who have had language for 6 years (as is available in many other districts). And it is NOT "just" keeping for admissions to colleges -- it is also about career opportunities, and college majors. It is MUCH easier to major in chemistry if you arrive at college with AP chemistry, for example. I'm not saying we should force all kids to take AP chemistry or any AP classes at all -- but are we really saying it is good that we don't even offer then? I don't think this is an area in which our schools should exercise "rebellion." I believe that other towns also care about providing a good education -- do you think "elite" towns (Newton, Brookline) are not trying to provide a good education as well? That we can't learn from other districts? Amherst College is about as elite as they come -- and yet our college (professors, administrators) still learn a lot from paying attention to course offerings and curricula and how writing is taught, etc., at other universities and colleges. One final point - you describe "elite" towns as my comparison, but this is factually incorrect -- I did a search of other districts in the Minority Student Achievement Network and what % of their kids take 8th grade algebra (it is about 40% in Amherst). In Arlington, VA (a district that is 30.1% low income, compared to 17% in Amherst, and ONLY 17.5% White, compared to 70% in Amherst), 50% of their 8th graders take algrebra. Similarly, Framingham, MA (a district that is as diverse as Amherst, but poorer -- with 29% of kids on free/reduced lunch), 50% of their kids take 8th grade algebra. Do you admire our "rebellion" in terms of having FEWER kids take 8th grade algebra than these other MUCH POORER districts? I don't -- which is I guess what makes me a nimby liberal?

Anonymous 5:04 - well-said -- thanks. It does seem very odd that in this supposedly liberal and academic town, a school committee member who dares to want our public schools to be truly excellent for all kids is accused of racism, classism, elitism, etc.

Ludmilla - thanks so much for sending the link -- I love this priming work, and in fact teach it in my classes. It seems like an amazing effect, huh?!?

Rick - I do think it is important to talk about how all kids can achieve, and I do think kids get different messages about that (from many sources -- this is NOT teacher-bashing). But I think it is unfair to accuse ACE of only focusing on this side of the problem. If you see our first set of priorities (, we include: Conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the policies focused on raising the achievement of children who do not reach proficient levels on MCAS or in their course-work. Again any such study should compare performance in Amherst with that of other high achieving districts.

If you listen to SC meetings, Steve has specifically asked for information on how well our district programs/policies serve the needs of these kids. I am sure our focus on precisely how we meet the needs of low-achieving kids (from all backgrounds) gets less press coverage than other ACE priorities, but I really don't think it is fair to accuse ACE (or me, or Steve) of not also prioritizing low-achieving kids. I think what people don't like is that we dare to say two things:

1. Just having programs for low-achieving kids is NOT enough -- we need to IF they work to actually raise achievement (one of the reasons why I completed an evaluation of the Pipeline program FOR FREE last year for our district). Steve and I are pushing for an evaluation of these programs as well as a review of what other approaches (LIKE THE ONE I POSTED THIS ARTICLE ON) to see if they work. And as this article clearly states, this program WAS quite effective for low-achieving Black students.

2. We are also daring to say that PART of the problem with low-achieving students may well be the lower expectations that we hold for these students (this is not stating that anyone is racist, biased, etc.) -- it is saying that we may unintentionally assume that lower-income students are not as capable of achieving as other students, and thus when ACE suggests our HS should offer AP chemistry, the immediate assumption is "oh, that's just for the white, wealthy kids." I disagree with this assumption -- I dare to believe that kids from all backgrounds who are interested in chemistry might find such a course enjoyable!

One more thing -- and I will do a blog post on this soon -- what Steve and I both believe (and he's said loudly at meetings both before and after his election to SC) is that we need more preschool offerings in our district for low-income students. That seems to be the BEST way (according to research) to intervene -- get kids ready to start school so that we don't begin school with an achivement gap already (which can then grow worse over time). In some sense, it would just be smarter to spend a lot more money in our district on programs for 3-year-olds than 13-year-olds.

In sum, I think it is really dangerous to assume that there is ONLY one "right" way to solve the achievement gap, and that those who suggest alternative approaches (which for some reason are mentioned much less in our district) don't "care" about resolving it -- sure, serious intervention programs can help (as Rick points out) but so can other approaches (such as setting high expectations, offering opportunities for self-affirmation, and providing universal preschool).

Migdalor Guy said...

"Show me the data!" This is the most over-used and meaningless phrase ever uttered. I am tired of this constant berating and un derrating of anecdotal and experiential evidence.

Perhaps, in the bubble of academia, one trusts processes like peer review to insure that methods of data collection and analysis are reasonable and within some acceptable potential deviation. Sadly, there is plenty of evidence that there is as much bad data and analysis in academia as there is in the business sector and society as a whole. That's why I leave it to others to present their cases on the basis of data and analysis. I'm just not convinved it is always the best evidence or the best tool for making choices.

Data collection is susceptible to all sorts of problems, often ones that can influence the data collected. Even the best researchers can find themselves with data collection methodologies that aren't as pure as they believe them to be.

Data, of course, is not of much use without analysis. Analysis is only as good as the underlying data. There's a real causal loop effect here that makes the whole process suspect.

Analysis is a weak link in the process, because the methodology of analysis can be just as easily used to manipulate the data to show that the analysis confirms desired results. An ever weaker link in the chain is the data itself. The methodology used for collecting the data can itself affect the data collected. Statisticians work hard to calculate the possible deviations, but the variables are so many. Can one really compare one town, one school district to another. Are they not, like human beings, rather individualized, eccentric, unique?
My own personal experience in several areas of endeavor have taught me to have great respect for informally collected and anecdotal data. Unfettered with some of the constraints of statistical data collection, you can sometimes get a more realistic picture.
And, by the way, for someone with such disdain for anecdotal evidence, Catherine, I am surprised by your comments in your Amherst Bulletin Education Matters Op-Ed piece about the lack of homework being assigned. That was clearly and unequivocally based on anecdotal evidence (and totally unsupported by my own family's experience at MM along with many others I spoke with who have children in Amhesrt elementary schools). I would throw your own cry of "show me the data" back at you, except, I myself don't believe that data is any more trustworthy. I will however, raise a cry of hypocrisy.

Abbie said...

Migdalor Guy:

so if you or someone in your family is sick and needs medical care (based on experimental data and data analysis) do you refuse it?

Do you use a weejee board or a magic eight ball to decide or something equally unscientific?

I present one example to illustrate how silly your position is. Further discussion would be a waste of time...

Anonymous said...

What is wrong with you Abbie--no where in his commentary does he speak of not trusting medical data....why would you attack his post this way...Has he said something that upset you--something to contradict perhaps what you think CS stands for....This attack from one adult to the other has become quite the three ring circus... from an interested observer.

Anonymous said...

I strongly feel after reading your stand on working with 3 year-olds instead of 13 year-olds that you must, somewhere in this line of thinking, feel that poor people are stupid, can't raise their kids right, and need your help in preparing them for the academic world.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Migdalor Guy - I'm frankly really confused by your post, since I seem to recall that you posted a bunch of stuff on my blog about the research showing small schools were better than large ones, yes? But sure, go with anecdote -- anecdotally, I hear from parents and teachers that there are district-wide views about not giving homework and also that the MS isn't all that it could be. Personally, I don't find that type of information (from potentially biased sources) compelling, which is why I've asked for a survey of all parents/kids/teachers AND why the Op Ed I wrote asks for an evaluation of when we should/should not assign homework (and despite what your anecdotal evidence shows you, mine suggests something different, which speaks to the dangers of relying on anecdote). However, my data on the homework policy comes NOT from parents, but from teachers/principals in our schools ... and yes, there may be different views about this in different schools -- which again speaks to me about the importance of making sure we have an AMHERST education, that is at least roughly equivalent in all the schools (it frankly seems to me that MM has more homework than the other schools, which may help explain the MCAS success in this school!).

Abbie - excellent point. Thanks.

Anonymous 9:52 - Abbie's clear point is that saying you shouldn't use data because it isn't trust-worthy is pretty silly. If you have cancer, would you like to know what kinds of treatments have been tested using data, or would you like your doctor's anecdotal report on how his last patient did with a particular treatment?

Anonymous 9:57 - given your strong opposition (and really offensive accusation) to my entirely novel and revolutionary idea that we focus on education for 3-year-olds, I have to assume that you are totally opposed to that stupid Headstart program and also to Obama's stupid new plan for universal preschool to help all kids, right? I just want to clarify whether your opposition to an idea that comes from me reflects a broader worldview that preschool education for all kids is a waste of time/money (e.g., Headstart, universal preschool), or if it just an opposition (anonymously, of course) to anything I suggest? I do hope you voted for John McCain, given your opposition to one of the hallmarks of Barack Obama's campaign and his vision for America (it seems quite clear that he shares my views about how poor people are just stupid and can't raise their kids right).

Name withheld to protect child's privacy said...

Another factor in favor of preschool is the ability to identify early kids who are struggling with learning issues. I cannot cite the studies, but I know from my mother the retired SPED teacher that early intervention is one of the most effective ways to help kids with learning disabilities. If these kids are in preschool the learning issues are more likely to be identified, and the (legally mandated) services supplied. In the long run this would likely save SPED dollars by preventing some number of kids from needing services when they are both more expensive, and less effective.

On an anecdotal level I have seen this work with a young relative who had significant developmental delay, particularly around language processing. After two years of preschool and therapy she entered kindergarten at grade level and without the need for any additional services. Had she not been in preschool the issues may not have been detected or treated, and she would have started elementary school two steps behind her peers, and struggling to catch up.

Preschool for all is not a luxury of the rich imposed on the poor. It is a great way for kids to have fun and learn social skills. It is also a once in a lifetime opportunity to identify and help kids with difficulties at a time intervention can be most helpful.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 10:57 - that's another great reason to have preschool for all - thanks for sharing. The early years are also the easiest years to pick up a second language, so this type of early intervention is also good for kids who have learned a language other than English at home. Again, this could lead to real cost-savings later on, since it is harder for kids to gain fluency in new languages as they get older and thus it will take more time/money/resources. And thanks for pointing out that of course universal preschool would be OPTIONAL, not MANDATED!

Anonymous said...

Do you know anything about HeadStart?
How dare you assume to know any of my thoughts or who I may have voted for!
In the 80's and 90's, and I do not know about today, all the kids attending HeadStart entered the public schools with an IEP in hand. Outrageous!! An all around given assumption that kids who are poor will automatically need remedial help once entering the public schools. Here is where the segregation of the classes begins.
Do you know there are families who do not allow their children to mingle outside of school with children who ride the vans to school? Do you know the special ed kids (some) do not even eat lunch with their peers?? Here is where the segregation of the classes continues.
You say to sell your summer house before you give up your main house??? Who are you talking to? Who do you think has a summer house or any house Catherine??
Someone insults a commentary on your blog and you praise her/him??
I think you come out so defensive when the truth is uncovered in the methods of your approach to closing this acheivement gap in the way the education is dispersed among the haves and the have nots in the Amherst system. In some ways your novice can be appreciated but in others I only see a bully trying to hush the truths you find offensive or maybe too difficult to deal with?? Not really sure...

Anonymous said...

Quite4 the inappropriate and EXTREMELY angry response you gave to anom 9:57...with responses like that and how you get angry and efensive when people write inopposition to you, and your assumption on who anom 9:57 voted for president!!! don't forget what happens when one assumes!~!! is hard to respect you if you cannot listen to those that oppse you. democracy is the merging of different opinions...thanks from someone who never attended pre-school