When Claude Steele started trying to figure out whey some students, despite their abilities, did not do well in classrooms, he began to see patterns – after a certain age and ability level, women began to do worse in math classes, white students lost confidence in their athletic abilities and African American students lost ground in almost every subject, even when intelligence test scores indicate they should be standouts.
Steele coined the term “stereotype threat” to describe this under-performance, and in Whistling Vivaldi, he describes the research that helped him to develop the theory. Time and time again, he was able to show the impact of a stereotype on individual members of a particular group, even if the stereotype in fact did not apply to them – for example: there is a persistent stereotype that girls are not good at math. And research has shown that when tested, extremely talented women do worse than equally talented men. However, if a woman is told that a particular test is designed for women, the discrepancy goes away even if the test is identical.
It is in the area of the achievement or opportunity gap that Steele’s research holds the most promise – because the solutions to fixing things are so simple. Here is a list of “Empirically Validated Strategies to Reduce Stereotype Threat”:
- Remove Cues That Trigger Worries About Stereotypes
- Convey That Diversity is Valued
- Create a Critical Mass
- Create Fair Tests, Present Them as Fair and as Serving a Learning Purpose
- Value Students’ Individuality
- Improve Cross-Group Interactions
- Present and Recruit Positive Role Models from Diverse Groups
- Help Students Manage Feelings of Stress and
- Support Students’ Sense of Belonging
- Convey High Standards and Assure Students of Their Ability to Meet These Standards
- Promote a Growth Mindset About
- Value-Affirmations to Reduce Stress and Threat
Some people found Whistling Vivaldi to be too academic – but I think it is worth wading through some of the research notes because if schools or even individual teachers took the time to address these stereotype threats, the opportunity/achievement gap would be reduced immediately. Reading about the successes that Steele’s research developed is fascinating. If only more teachers would read and apply this work, our students of color would have a greater opportunity to succeed. And that is great gift for all of us.