The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What psychology tells us about student achievement — and how it is ignored


Modern school reform has focused primarily on “accountability” measures — or, how to hold students, teachers, principals, schools and districts “accountable” for higher standardized-test scores, but, unfortunately has failed to look at many of the real problems children face in their classrooms.

The following post, by Geoffrey L. Cohen and Sara Goldrick-Rab, looks at some of the issues students face that are being ignored by policymakers who have chosen to look at academic progress through a narrow window.  Cohen is a professor of psychology, education, and (by courtesy) business at Stanford University, and Goldrick-Rab is professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

By Geoffrey L. Cohen and Sara Goldrick-Rab

When preschool children put on Superman capes they are three times more likely to resist a temptation and wait for a larger reward.

When ethnic minority students get feedback from their teachers accompanied by a note that says that they can reach a higher standard, the students reach that standard. In fact they perform as well as their white classmates.

And when poor urban students are taught to see intelligence as similar to a muscle that grows with practice, they achieve better grades and test scores.

These results from scientific studies in psychology are important because the ability to delay gratification, to learn from feedback, and to score well on tests predict lifelong success in school and beyond. Yet they can be changed in an instant. How can this be?

The lesson is that students are capable of far more than they achieve in the typical classroom. Improving that setting can help a child soar.

When we see someone succeed or fail, it is easy to over-credit the qualities of person and under-credit the qualities of their circumstances. Poor people are often said to be inherently less intelligent. But studies show that poor people perform as well as rich people on an IQ test—until they are reminded of a financial stressor. Then their IQ test scores plummeted. Although deficits in IQ seem to reflect a lack of smarts, it also reflects circumstance. If the circumstance recurs, so does the deficit.

Many people think that educating a child is akin to filling a cup. Open heads and pour in knowledge, skills, and virtues. This metaphor is seductive because it calls on deeply held stereotypes that paint poor and minority children as not having enough drive and smarts.

But the original meaning of education is “to draw out,” not to “fill up.” Yes, we need to teach children strategies for maintaining self-control in difficult circumstances. But we also need to create classrooms that draw out what students already have inside them. Often times, current performance underestimates potential.

Children reproduce the character of their schools and the society around them. In one study, far fewer children resisted a tempting treat in order to obtain a larger reward later if the experimenter had failed to deliver on an earlier promise. That kind of untrustworthy environment resembles the one that poor and minority children live with every day. In one study, African Americans’ race lessened their hiring prospects as much as having a prison record.

Here is a partial list of the circumstantial factors, big and small, that should be addressed:

* racial bias in disciplinary actions and assignment to remedial tracks

* the practice of over-praising and under-challenging minority students

* the dearth of opportunities for teenage students to feel like respected and valued in the asylum-like settings of many middle and high schools

* inadequate school resources that constrain opportunity

* misspent resources on programs that don’t work (such as Scared Straight) rather than programs that do (such as volunteer programs for teenagers)

* curricula that prioritize busy work over reflective thinking that awakens students’ curiosity

* an economy that makes it hard for teachers and parents to have the time and energy to support their families and for their children to have faith that their efforts today will be rewarded tomorrow.

All of these circumstances contribute to students feeling frustrated, ineffective, and under-motivated.

If we want to make our schools more effective, we have to redirect our energy and focus on ensuring that they are supportive settings. “You can do it, you belong, and your efforts will pay off,” must be the message and reality conveyed to all students in every classroom.

Then will we see the full potential of our young people emerge.