By almost every measure, Cupertino High School in northern California is a successful place. Perched in the heart of Silicon Valley, Cupertino sent 85 percent of its senior class to college in 2009, and hundreds of its students take advanced placement classes each year.
But some of Cupertino’s kids are doing better than others. On average, students there excel on California’s Academic Performance Index. The target is 800; Cupertino students scored 893. Latino students, however, who make up 10 percent of the school’s population, scored 780, just under the statewide goal.
Recently, a group of social and cognitive psychologists have hypothesized that at least some academic disparities spring from toxic stereotypes that cause ethnic-minority and other students to question whether they belong in school and can do well there. While such a major problem might seem to require widespread social change, the psychologists are finding that quick classroom exercises that bolster students’ resistance to stereotypes can make a surprisingly large difference.
They’ve gotten dramatic results: In one of the best-known studies, low-performing black middle school students who completed several 15-minute classroom writing exercises raised their GPAs by nearly half a point over two years, compared with a control group.
A growing body of evidence also shows that the interventions can work, not only among black middle school students, but also for women, minority college students, and other populations.
“When this was first described to me, I was skeptical,” says physics professor Michael Dubson, who participated in one of the studies. “But now that I think about it, we all know that it’s possible to damage a student in 15 minutes. It’s easy to wreck someone’s self-esteem. So if that’s possible, then maybe it’s also possible to improve it.”
Keep reading …