Educators at McCaskey East High School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania are trying something different to close the academic achievement gap between black and white students: They’re separating them. For six minutes every day and 20 minutes every other week, students are segregated based on race and gender as part of the school’s new mentoring program. This new policy was developed in the hopes that minority students’ academic performance will improve if they are provided with a positive role model within a group setting.
While educators at the school are clearly well intentioned, their policy of segregating students based on race and gender may do more harm than good. First described by Steele and Aronson (1995), stereotype threat occurs when members of a negatively stereotyped group experience temporary cognitive deficits when confronted with a task where their performance could potentially support the negative stereotypes associated with their group. For example, many African-American students have to contend with the stereotype that they are less intelligent than White students. Similarly, women are often subjected to the stereotype that they are worse than their male counterparts at subjects related to math and science. According to over 15 years of research on stereotype threat, simply mentioning to an African-American student that a test measures intelligence or asking a female student to indicate their gender on a math exam is enough to activate the threat, often leading to diminished performance. Hence, making gender or race salient within an academic setting has the potential to widen the very achievement gaps that educators are attempting to close.
With this in mind, educators in Pennsylvania may want to re-think the way they separate their students. While providing students with positive mentors is sure to promote self-confidence and encourage hard work, exposing them to stereotype threat may very likely have the opposite result.
Keller, J. (2007). Stereotype threat in classroom settings: The interactive effect of domain identification, task difficulty and stereotype threat on female students’ math performance. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 77, 323-338.
McGlone, M.S., Pfiester, R.A., (2007). The Generality and consequence of stereotype threat. Sociology Compass, 1, 174-190.