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Overcoming the Achievement Gap – Can It Be This Simple?

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To pass the time on my flights to and from NECC, I grabbed – and dusted off – a few magazines from my nightstand. The first article to catch my eye was from the April/May 2007 edition of George Luca’s edutopia: Overcoming Underachievement – How a simple writing exercise dismantled negative racial preconceptions. I’ve since reread this short (2 pages) piece several times. The article describes a study run by researchers from Yale, Stanford, and the University of Colorado, with many quotes from lead researcher Geoffrey Cohen. The researchers had a theory that “the disparity in academic performance between white and African American students is partly fueled by a psychological effect called stereotype threat.” To narrow the achievement gap, they proposed using “a simple fifteen-minute writing exercise.”

What really grabbed my attention about the experiment is that the setting could easily have been a middle school from my district: “… a middle school attended by about even numbers of African American and white students, mostly from middle or lower middle class families… this school already had positive forces in play – sufficient resources, devoted staff, academically prepared students…” Nevertheless, an “invisible obstacle” was blocking African American students from “fully exploiting those benefits.”

The 15-minute assignment (randomly assigned with a control group given a different set of choices) was “to choose from a list of attributes the ones they value, such as relationships with friends or being good at art, and write about them.” The researchers believed that allowing students to write about things they cared about would “counter the fear of being stereotyped long enough to boost their grades on the next assignment.” And it did. Grades improved not only on the next assignment, but on their final grades too.

It’s a no-brainer that letting students write on topics that are important to them fosters improved writing. But what jumps out to me is that the significant achievement gains were attributed to a single assignment. Teachers are under tremendous pressure right now “to fit it all in,” but I think they can always squeeze one more thing in if they see the value. I’m going to pass the article on!

Of course, I couldn’t keep from thinking what if… the students were invited to go “live” with their essays in a Web 2.0 environment?!?

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4 Comments

  1. We had some success having second grade students write about their lives and then turn those stories into films.

  2. Thanks for sharing the article.
    I am curious by what you mean by your last thought: What if students were invited to live with their essays?
    How might you envision that?
    Kevin

  3. Mathew, between your writing prompts and your wonderful digital storytelling projects, how are you documenting students gains? I can’t believe I’m actually asking that question because what really counts is that I am very sure your students want to come to school because you are offering an engaging curriculum. I’m asking because an easy way to overcome administrative resistance to “adding something new to the curriculum” is to show student gains.

  4. Kevin,

    I actually tried a Google search using the terms “what if” writing skills Web 2.0 to see if anyone already had already answered my question. I was hoping for something like Karl Fisch’s Did You Know (which has gone on to many great versions, including a collaborative one with Scott McCloud). That search was not fruitful, but “writing skills” Web 2.0 turned up an interesting post by Will Richardson – http://www.weblogg-ed.com/2007/web-20-as-cultural-and-intellectual-catastrophe/ .
    What I envisioned was what if students writing about what they valued connected with another classroom or two also writing about something personally important? What if those students used tags and could then easily who else had similar aspirations, ideas, and fears. (I’m thinking something like an elgg or wiki environment)? What if those middle students connected with a group of high school students who had written to the same prompt themselves while in middle school? And what if those middle school students connected to a group of college students willing to share their challenges and successes on the road from middle school to high school to college? But wait, what if they connected with a group of professionals willing to mentor and encourage middle schoolers in overcoming obstacles????

    It is my personal belief that students thrive when they feel valued and a part of a community. For many students, the virtual community offers this opportunity to belong and to contribute – even if that is not the case in the real-time school community.

    Oops, this response sounds like a rant. but it really isn’t. I was just wondering “what if…”

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