The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Experimental Test of a Brief Writing Intervention to Close the Achievement Gap

Friday, January 18, 2013: 9:00 AM
Executive Center 3A (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Kristina C. Webber, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Kate M. Wegmann, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Natasha K. Bowen, PhD, Associate Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Background and purpose. Stereotype threat theory, and the experimental research based on the theory, indicates that negative cultural stereotypes can impede the academic performance of students from stereotyped groups.  In previous studies of a brief writing intervention designed to counteract stereotype threat, the social studies grades of African American 7thgraders improved after they wrote a 15-minute self-affirming essay near the beginning of the school year. Teachers did not read student essays in these studies. The current experimental study sought to replicate and expand on past studies by introducing a social environmental component (teachers reading students’ essays) and including two additional stereotyped groups (low income and Latino students). We hypothesized that if teachers read students’ essays, not only would positive psychological effects within students lead to better academic performance, but teachers’ views of and interactions with students would improve, also facilitating improved performance over time.

Methods.  All students at a low performing middle school were randomly assigned to write a self-affirming or neutral essay. Their homeroom teachers (N=24) were randomly assigned to either read or not read the essays, leading to four conditions. In the control condition, students wrote a neutral essay that was not read by teachers. About 70% of students were African American, 20% were Latino; the majority were from low income families. The intervention took place during homeroom near the end of the first quarter. Quarterly grade data were obtained from school records at the end of the school year. Longitudinal hierarchical linear modeling was conducted with Stata V.10 to compare grade trajectories of students in different conditions.

Results. In support of our hypothesis about the value of teachers reading self-affirming essays, grades of students who wrote positive essays that were read by teachers had higher 1st quarter grades (2.12, p = .05) than those of students who wrote positive essays not read by teachers. Their grades also declined more slowly over the school year than those in the control group (.17 points per quarter vs. 1.05, p = .029). Among Latino students, however, the self-affirming essay alone resulted in higher first quarter grades than all other conditions (5.41 to 7.07 points).

Conclusions and implications. Overcoming negative academic stereotypes within students’ minds and the classroom environment is likely a prerequisite for eliminating the achievement gap in American education. The relatively large and immediate effects of the simple writing intervention suggest that stereotypes are indeed threats to student achievement, yet malleable. A valuable role for school social workers is to address unfavorable student stereotypes in an ongoing and systematic way. The unusual finding for Latino students indicates the need for further research into cultural differences in the effects of the writing intervention and possibly other stereotype interventions. We will present examples of school social work interventions that address the school conditions in which stereotypes impede school success.