When I was in the third grade, my mom bribed me to read books with the promise of a Kennedy half-dollar for each one I conquered. I needed the prodding: I liked to play in class, wasn’t too interested in listening to teachers and, as a result, I was in one of the lowest-skilled reading groups. There’s a direct correlation between a student’s reading ability in the third grade and whether they’ll stay in school—some experts say you can look at a class of third graders and almost know which of them will drop out. I could have been one of those kids.
I “got with the program” late, but my reading skills improved quickly. At first, those shiny coins motivated me to crack the books, but soon I was reading one book after another because I simply fell in love with words. In the fourth grade, I accelerated to one of the top-reading-level groups.
How was I able to overcome my reading deficit so quickly, to advance from practically the lowest- to the highest-reading level in my grade? Maybe it had to do with the interventions that took place in my life before elementary school. I came from an economically disadvantaged background, but somehow my parents found the resources to enroll me in preschool, and Mom didn’t neglect her duty to read to me and to stimulate my mind through other activities, like trips outside of our familiar surroundings to places like the zoo and to a park from which we watched planes take off and land. I may have been predisposed to do well: I had the tools to help me learn how to read—I just needed to be pushed to use them.
In his paper The Case for Investing in Disadvantaged Young Children, Nobel laureate economist and University of Chicago professor James Heckman writes, “Life cycle skill formation is dynamic in nature. Skill begets skill; motivation begets motivation. Motivation cross-fosters skill, and skill cross-fosters motivation.”
Heckman argues that the United States and other countries overemphasize the importance of achievement tests in determining public policy and that more emphasis should be placed on early childhood education. He supports making larger investments in children’s early years, especially in those of disadvantaged children. By “disadvantaged” he does not exclusively mean financially disadvantaged but also children who, regardless of economic background, suffer from a lack of proper parenting. The cost of poor or no early education is huge, Heckman shows. Some of its results: low work productivity and crime. Once a student has missed the basics during the early developmental years, it’s hard to overcome that, even when intervention is tried:
Wrote Heckman, “ … for studies in which later intervention shows some benefits, the performance of disadvantaged children is still behind the performance of children who experienced earlier interventions in the preschool years. If the base is weak, the return on later investment is low.”
As an adult, I’ve spent significant time as a journalist reporting on the lives and experiences of potential high school dropouts. I’ve seen how a lack of strong early education hinders such students from doing well academically. Cutting up in class, not paying attention, and skipping school are factors tied to dropping out, but oftentimes these types of behaviors simply mask the root cause—inadequate academic preparation.
The importance of the quality of education children receive before they hit kindergarten can’t be overemphasized. True enough, as Heckman writes, “skill begets skill.” Kids who don’t get the skills early are going to have a hard time catching up with their more fortunate classmates, if they ever catch up at all.
Thinking back on my own experience, the skills I picked up before age five provided a strong foundation for later learning, and the reading skills I eventually acquired helped me perform well on standardized tests and do well, sometimes exceptionally so, in classes beyond English. As my skills dramatically improved, I began to love school. I no longer cut up with my peers; instead, I became one of the most attentive students in class. Ultimately, I graduated high school with an honors diploma. I was ranked fourth out of more than 200 students. I thank my experiences before kindergarten and my doting mother for that.
Confronted by a gruff and cynical white boss, my ability to verbally string a sentence together failed me suddenly. Crazy. I had recently earned a master’s degree—in a communications-related field from a high-ranked university, no less—and I had been a strong student.
I was twentysomething, working in the South. Whether it was in my head or not, I felt I had to disprove a stereotype I sensed the boss held: that I had been hired because I was black, not because I was good; but my anxiety caused me to speak and perform in ways that thwarted my efforts to do well. I’d experienced racism growing up, and it had left a psychic wound. At that job, my antenna picked up some familiar interference, and I spluttered.
Many years later, this May at an Education Writers Association conference, I stifled a cry when I heard the night’s speaker put a name on the “condition” I had suffered. I’d had a classic case of what Stanford University Graduate School of Education dean Claude Steele calls “stereotype threat”: I wanted to do well, but when I perceived I was being negatively judged based on a stereotype, my tension and frustration mounted, and my extreme efforts to destroy the stereotype caused me to fail. For the first time, I was hearing that I’d experienced a recognized phenomenon.
In an issue of The Atlantic, Steele called it “the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype, or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype.”
“Everyone experiences stereotype threat,” his article stated. “We are all members of some group about which negative stereotypes exist, from white males and Methodists to women and the elderly. And in a situation where one of those stereotypes applies—a man talking to women about pay equity, for example, or an aging faculty member trying to remember a number sequence in the middle of a lecture—we know that we may be judged by it.”
Steele, a social psychologist, has put his stamp on the topic. In the 1990s, he showed how and why stereotype threat caused African Americans with strong academic backgrounds and high SAT scores to drop out of college at a significantly higher rate than whites.
Steele’s research has shown that strong, highly prepared, confident students suffer from stereotype threat more than weak students. That’s because, the theory goes, the higher-achieving students are more deeply invested in doing well, and their anxiety over being perceived as inadequate to the task and efforts to overcome that perception are higher. The higher their anxiety, the more likely they are to trip over it.
That’s what happened to me on that job, but I am hard-pressed to recall experiencing the threat in high school and in college, though I know it existed in subtle ways. Thankfully, by and large my teachers and professors, black and white, were nurturers. They cheered me on to believe I was as capable as the next student, that I was being assessed based truly on my performance, not based on a negative stereotype about a group to which I belonged. I was one of the lucky ones—at least in school. Certainly there are many students who experience stereotype threat and who drop out or don’t perform at a level they are capable of, at least in part, because of the threat dynamic.
As this school year begins, educators should keep in mind that a key to students’ success lies not only in urging them to stay on task in the classroom and complete assignments, but also in creating an academic environment students perceive as fair. Steps to eliminating stereotype threat are more complex than this, of course, but this is certainly a start in helping vulnerable students perform at their highest potential.
Over many years, age and experience—and my earlier academic foundation, built on those strong educators (not to mention strong, positive parental influence)—have helped me work through and overcome many issues tied to stereotype threat. I hope that other students this year are fortunate enough to have teachers who “get it.”
Too often, low-income high school students who shine academically fail to apply to any competitive colleges and universities, instead opting for the “easy” schools. None of the adults these students encounter and/or their older, former schoolmates attended a selective institution of higher learning, and these institutions don’t appear to aggressively recruit low-income high-achievers unless they attend selective high schools that are on the academic map.
That’s the takeaway from a study published last year by Stanford University economics professor Caroline M. Hoxby and Harvard public policy professor Christopher Avery. From my vantage point, their conclusions are spot-on. In recent years, I’ve helped administer a college scholarship program that has attracted its share of financially challenged, high-achieving students who don’t apply for “reach” schools. Some applicants said they didn’t do so because of the high costs of competitive colleges. The irony of that assumption, Hoxby and Avery point out, is that competitive institutions, given their financial resources, are more likely to provide generous financial aid packages—even a full-ride—to low-income students, than less-competitive, resource-poor schools would.
As the two academics show, these students could be helped if adults steered them to dream bigger, outside their backyard, and if they saw peers attend competitive institutions. A more recent follow-up report they issued also shows these young adults are more likely to reach higher when they are provided with information that demystifies the true costs of competitive colleges and shows they have a strong chance of academic success in such settings. During my days at an urban high school, these factors certainly helped cement my college aspirations. I was a high-achieving student from a financially challenged background, and my parents did not attend selective institutions of higher learning; but at my school I saw or heard about teens who didn’t come “from money” yet still went on to attend some of the best colleges and universities in the country—Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology among them. My thinking: If my peers could attain such heights, so could I. My teachers and my terrific guidance counselor told me I could too.
I went on to attend a competitive university hundreds of miles from home. While there, I met people from a broad range of geographic, economic, and academic backgrounds. I learned a lot about the diversity of people and experiences, not only in the classroom through renowned lecturers, but in my dorm and through student activities. For the first time in my life, on an intimate level I met people who were well-off, and I found that many of them had the same fears and growing up to do that I had. My experiences at that school endowed me with the belief that I could succeed in many settings. Reaching for the stars academically was a blessing.
While in high school, being surrounded by success and being encouraged to aim high was critical to keeping me on the path to strive for the best in higher education. As Hoxby and Avery’s study suggests, more of that type of encouragement needs to take place in all types of high schools, and staffs at competitive colleges can help the effort by broadening their search for eligible students from low-income backgrounds. It would be great to see more of these students—and more of the applicants for the scholarship program I assist—reap the benefits of reaching for the stars.
Cheryl Ross is the author of the Jasmine’s Journey series for WHRO Public Media’s “American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen,” an initiative of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. She is an award-winning education writer, book editor and publicist, and president of the Hampton Roads Black Media Professionals.