As part of our 20th anniversary celebration and in recognition of Black History Month, we asked Dr. Jason Snipes, Director of Applied Research for REL-West at WestEd, to discuss his inspiration for his IES-funded replication study. The purpose of the study is to test the potential of self-affirmation interventions to counteract the harmful effects of negative racial stereotypes on the academic, disciplinary, and psychosocial outcomes of 7th grade Black and Latino students.
What motivates your research on the effects of self-affirmation interventions on Black and Latino student outcomes?
My mother was a civil rights activist, and I was raised with a clear sense of my history as a Black person and the importance of making a contribution worthy of those that preceded me. Her example inspired me to pursue a career in research on education and youth development and to focus on finding, testing, and understanding strategies for improving outcomes for the Black, Latino, and other students systematically underserved by our education system.
My specific interest in stereotype threat and self-affirmation research stems in part from my own education experiences. I still remember how—despite being in the gifted and talented program at my elementary school—every mistake I made, every question I asked, every idea I expressed was greeted with the snickers and whispers of my peers crudely expressing their doubts about my intelligence. I remember my success slipping away, and before I knew it, being in 8th grade remedial math—failing. My father essentially saved my life. He somehow taught me to truly believe that I could accomplish anything I wanted to. This is not a solution to systemic racism. Still, his support for changing my beliefs about myself, combined with going to a new high school, completely changed my academic trajectory.
I again felt the weight and pressure of low expectations in graduate school, in the subtle and not-so-subtle ways my White professors expressed their doubts about my ability to succeed in a rigorous PhD program.
So, later in my career, when I learned about stereotype threat and self-affirmation, I saw a bit of myself and my life experiences. I saw something else that I found unusual: an intervention with significant effects, even when tested in rigorous randomized trials. I wanted to know more about where, how, and under what circumstances it could be effectively used support Black and Brown children.
What is stereotype threat and how might it impact Black students?
Among Black students, stereotype threat is the fear of confirming negative racial stereotypes about their academic performance and their underlying intelligence. It can be one of the many persistent and pervasive psychological stressors that Black people encounter on a daily basis. Randomized trials show that when prompted to believe a test is an assessment of their intelligence, Black students perform more poorly. The prompt generates physiological and psychological stress responses, reduces available working memory, and results in both fewer questions answered in a given period of time and a lower percentage of correct answers among those given. The same prompt has no effect on White or Asian students. A meta-analysis of 300 studies suggests stereotype threat accounts for a quarter to a third of the Black-White and Latino-White achievement gaps.
How does the self-affirmation intervention you are evaluating address stereotype threat?
The self-affirmation intervention, created by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, is designed to respond to stereotype threat. It’s a set of four 15-minute writing exercises administered over the course of a school year. Each exercise provides students with the opportunity to affirm their value by asking them to write about things that are important to them. Experiments with college and middle school students show that self-affirmation improves a variety of academic outcomes for Black students, and that that these effects persist and grow over time.
Our study goes beyond prior research to provide new evidence about the impact of self-affirmation on Black and Latinx students in schools with different demographic compositions and the extent to which its effects generalize across a nationally representative sample of schools. Some studies suggest that self-affirmations effects are smaller in schools with higher concentrations of Black and/or Latino students. We plan to systematically explore this and other questions about moderators. Our findings will have implications for the settings in which self-affirmation ought to be scaled and implemented and how it might be used as a complement to other available supports to bolster the success of Black and Latinx students.
That stereotype threat appears to account for a quarter of observed racial achievement gaps, and that self-affirmation ameliorates this effect makes self-affirmation relevant to larger discussions of educational equity. Self-affirmation, along with other psychosocial interventions, should be investigated as potential tools for reducing racial disparities in education outcomes. That said, it is important to remember that racial inequity is a feature of the education system and the institutions that surround it, not a function of some sort of “flaw” in the attitudes or psychosocial make up of Black and Brown students themselves. While these approaches may help buffer Black and Latino students against the full consequences of racism, bias, and stereotyping, we should never allow ourselves to be confused. The fundamental problem is not Black and Latino students’ ability to cope with these dynamics, but the presence of these dynamics in and of themselves. Furthermore, psychosocial interventions are not a substitute for high quality instruction or solutions to other systemic problems (for example, de facto segregation) that have powerful negative effects on academic outcomes among Black and Latino students.
Self-affirmation is also relevant to discussions of racial equity in education because the intervention reflects a fundamental concept underlying racial equity: personhood. It offers students a chance to affirm their value as human beings, and this may be one of the mechanisms through which it helps disrupts the destructive cycle of stereotype threat. This simple assertion embodies a core idea underlying the civil rights movement: that racial equity requires recognizing and treating Black and Brown people as fully human.
Your current IES study aims to replicate prior research on self-affirmation. Why is replication important?
Too often, I have seen researchers, policy makers, practitioners, and funders make the mistake of misinterpreting results from a single, even rigorously designed, study as answering the question of whether an intervention or strategy works. Reality is more complex. What we can learn from a single study is usually something closer to the extent to which an approach worked in this place (or places) at this time. Under pressure for answers to pressing policy problems, we may rush to scale approaches or interventions with evidence from one or two well designed studies, only to find out that they don’t work at scale, or in a subsequent implementation, and we don’t know why.
It may be better to ask, “To what extent does an approach generate impacts, under what circumstances does it do so, and why?” Systematically replicating initial causal studies, enables researchers to address these questions more effectively. Rather than guessing at post hoc explanations of the patterns we observe, replication systematically tests hypotheses regarding how implementation, context, and other moderators and mediators affect program impacts. Doing so prior to undertaking massive scaling efforts therefore helps reduce the extent to which money, effort, and, perhaps most importantly, public will, are expended on strategies with fundamental limitations. Replication enables us to more systemically study and understand mechanisms of action, improving the extent to which we implement or scale interventions in contexts and situations in which they are likely to be most effective.
This blog was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov) and Corinne Alfeld (Corinne.Alfeld@ed.gov), NCER Program Officers.