Substantial racial disparities in academic performance continue to fuel the lifelong inequities in opportunities and well-being that are the focus of much of social work practice and research. An intriguing body of multidisciplinary experimental research suggests that brief “self-affirmation” interventions can lead to substantial reductions in academic disparities between African American and White secondary students. Students write in a school setting for 15 minutes on a positive value they hold. Theoretically, attention to a positive characteristic interferes with the academic harm caused by students’ awareness of negative academic stereotypes about their social group. Some have called such interventions “magic.” This study investigated the claim of “magic” more closely with within-group analyses, compared the standard intervention with a social-work-enhanced version, and tested the intervention’s effects in two additional subject areas.
The study used quarterly grade data from 236 African American students randomly assigned to four conditions. Students were a subset of 585 African American, Latino, and White middle schoolers in a southeastern middle school. The intervention occurred before first quarter grades were collected. Longitudinal hierarchical linear models compared social studies (SS), math, and language arts (LA) grade trajectories for a neutral writing condition, a self-affirmation condition, and two parallel conditions that included teachers reading students’ essays (the social work/social environmental enhancement). The within-group analysis allowed for tests of whether condition, time, and gender interacted to affect grade trajectories within a stereotyped group instead of in comparison to White students. In addition to replicating prior studies of SS grades, we examined Math and (LA) grades.
On average, students in the sample had declining grade trajectories over the school year. Therefore, positive effects on trajectories meant reductions in the decline of grades over time. Consistent with previous studies, writing a self-affirming essay slowed the decline of African American students’ SS grades relative to those writing a neutral essay. No comparable effects were found with Math and LA grades. Being female was consistently associated with higher grades in all three subjects, and also affected the slope of changes in grades for LA.
The social work enhancement focused on changing the social environment by improving teacher-student relationships instead of targeting only psychological factors. Compared to affirmation-only students, those whose teachers read their affirming essays had higher SS grades after the intervention. Comparable effects were not found for Math and LA grades.
School social workers have a responsibility to promote effective interventions for students experiencing structural barriers to their school success. Our findings suggest that a brief writing intervention, especially when enhanced by teachers reading the essays, can have beneficial effects on the academic performance of African American students. However, despite its seemingly “magical” effects, the intervention does not have consistent effects across subjects, with null effects on the highly emphasized subjects of Math and LA. Given the simplicity of the intervention, school social workers should advocate for its use in Social Studies classrooms, but it cannot be relied on to magically lead to school success, especially for African American boys.