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The Obama Effect: Reversing the Curse
As Dr. Jeff Howard points out, "Barack Obama's presidency is an absolutely historic achievement that I expect will have an immense and long lasting psychological impact." OK, but how? What impact are all those classroom posters of President Obama actually having on children, especially African-American children? A recent study by Ray Friedman called "The Obama Effect" offers an answer: thinking about Obama before a big test actually improves performance among minority students—to the point of virtually eliminating that famous racial performance gap.
What was going on?
Friedman's study zeros in on something called "stereotype threat," a phenomenon first articulated by psychologist Claude Steele, that works like this: Ask a group of white and black test-takers to identify their race before a test and, even in cases where they are equally prepared or educated, whites will perform several points higher than blacks. Simply acknowledging race before a test can create enough anxiety for minority test-takers to underperform.
However, stereotype threat can be combated by the presence of a role model--in person or in mind. For example, Friedman states that, "an advanced, black, Ph.D student in front of the room would... cause an improvement in test scores" among black test-takers.
But while any positive role model can counteract stereotype threat, "Obama['s] is simply the most... outsized effect."
What do students have to say about "The Obama Effect"?
Curious to know what some students I work with would think about the "Obama Effect," I presented a summary of the study to a group of high school seniors from Boston's Health Careers Academy. At first they were skeptical of the correlation, and how long it would last. But digging deeper, they began to acknowledge their own experiences with stereotype threat.
Chris, an outgoing young man, admitted he never identifies his race before a test because he gets "nervous that if I do bad they are going to think black people are dumb." This is exactly how stereotype threat works; "If there is a stereotype against your group," Friedman explains, "there would be a concern that if your performance is bad, it doesn't reflect [only] on you, but might reflect badly on [your group] overall."
But Whitney disagreed. "I highly doubt that just checking 'black' is going to make you nervous," she asserted. "And besides, if you know the stereotype isn't true, why do you believe in it?"
Her classmate Lillian had an answer, based on the unconscious: "You don't want to believe in stuff like that, but in the back of your head it's still there," she said.
There is, in fact a deep psychological root to stereotype threat. Too many of our students are subject to its negative effects, generating widespread doubt and reducing confidence about academic performance. On any given day, on any given test, stereotype threat can result in two or three incorrect answers from enough of our students to cause a persistent performance gap.
But there’s a new sheriff in town. "The Obama Effect," properly understood and employed, can ‘reverse the curse’ of stereotype threat.
For more on Friedman's "Obama Effect," we suggest the following resources:
Tony Cox's NPR interview with Ray Friedman:
Vanderbilt University summary including YouTube video interview with Ray Friedman:
How does the U.S. rank internationally in education?
Irvin Mull joined the Envoy Project in 2010 as a broadcast student at the Memphis City Schools Telecommunications...
Cara Feinberg's article for Ed., The Magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Eduction