** Claude Steele on Stereotype Threat, Tracking, and CRLS

Emily Dexter, 11-24-2014


Earlier this month, social psychologist Claude Steele (now Vice-Chancellor/Provost at UC Berkeley) gave a talk at the Harvard Ed. School about his decades-long career researching stereotype threat–the pressure and anxiety people experience when they are doing something that is contrary to stereotypes.  (Female students in math/science classes, Black or Latino students in predominantly-White colleges, etc.) He and his research team, over the years, did a series of ingenious experiments showing that the same person would do worse on a task if you did something to “cue” a negative stereotype that applied to them.  E.g. when Black college students were given a portion of the GRE exam and told it was a test of intellectual ability, they did worse than White students told the same thing; but when told it was a simple problem-solving task or puzzle, they did as well as White students.  Similarly, when African American students were asked to identify their race before taking a test, they did worse than if not asked that question. They found very similar patterns with other stereotypes, such as women students in math/science situations.

I recommend the video of the talk (link below) because Prof. Steele is an engaging speaker (and seems like an extremely positive person), it’s very accessible (i.e. not just for specialists), and it is packed with information about his findings and about interventions he helped design. He includes anecdotes from his own career as one of the few Black psychologists when he started out in the 1960s, and also a clip from the bio-pic of White rapper Eminem, a scene in which Eminem is about to perform as the only White rapper at a predominantly Black club and chokes under the pressure as the crowd taunts, “White with a mike!”  (But, happy ending, he overcomes his stereotype threat and goes on to be a successful rapper despite his race.)

In terms of reducing stereotype threat so that students can perform to the level they are really capable of, Prof. Steele emphasized, first, the need to reduce the cues in the environment that tell students who is and is not expected to succeed:

The number of people in a situation [who share some aspect of your identity] is a cue as to whether an identity is going to be elicited… We all read situations, we all count. If I go into a music club with my son, I’m asking, “How many other gray haired people are in this club?”.…You are trying to figure out about what your identity means. When you think about remedies, the first things to think about are the cues in a situation and how they tell us whether an identity is significant….As our institutions change, we have to look at how they are organized, and what message that organization is signaling. A lot has to do with cues.

When you go into Berkeley High School, you see instantly that there are two high schools there. I don’t care what the adults say. There’s one upstairs that’s a pretty good, almost like a White upper middle class prep school, and one in the basement for Black and Latino kids. They are tracking systems, they are not in the same courses, they are parallel universes in the same building.   And in my region of the country, you can see that everywhere. You can walk into any school and see the cues that drive the significance of that identity.  And that identity starts to have an impact on performance and becomes a huge signal about where people belong and where they don’t belong. And you can’t convince a kid to feel differently from what the reality is that they are experiencing. 

So that’s the first level of attention, of remedy that has to be applied. We have to break some of these structures that are tied to our history as a society and the way our history is organized. We have to pay some real attention down on the ground.

He then went on to describe other remedies, including an intervention he helped design for African American freshmen at the University of Michigan:

We had Thursday night bull sessions of about 15 people each, with each group roughly the same demographics as the campus—mostly White kids, four or five Black kids. We had them meet every Thursday and just talk about personal things. Not about race, not about affirmative action, not politics, just personal things like money, parents, girlfriends, boyfriends, all that basic stuff.  They talked about that for six months every Thursday.

It had an explosive effect on the grades of African American students.  Grades went up by one third and their graduation rates were almost double that of other African American students [who were not in the intervention].  And it was only a first semester freshman intervention.  Why did that happen? They are getting evidence that a lot of what happens to them happens to everyone. When you are talking personally, you are talking with people in your group. So a lot of what happens to you happens because of your membership in that group, and it makes sense because of the history of our society. So you tend to expand to assume that your group identity explains everything that happens to you. But when you talk to people from a different group, you find out the same thing happened to him too. “The TA didn’t return his email either, the professor said something nasty to him too.” So soon that identity becomes less relevant as an interpretive frame. You can relax and pay attention, and make progress, and pretty soon it lessens the whole threat in the situation. Talking across group boundaries: Big deal in this kind of thing.

During the question period at the end of the talk, a student from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School asked a question:

I’m from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School and in my school we still have tracking, and I feel it implicates the whole stereotype issue. We don’t have it in the entire school like if you’re this race or whatever. It’s more like, in our classes it’s CP, honors, and AP. And I feel like as a Black female I get into a lot of honors and AP classes and I feel like when I’m there I’m the only Black female. And it’s not like I’m trying to shoot down the stereotypes but more use them for my power.  To say, “I’m Black, but I can do this. I’m here.”  You said that the tracking shouldn’t be used? But at our school we still have that.

 Prof. Steele’s response was:

I greatly empathize with the experience, being in those classrooms, being one of a small number or the only person, having that be a continued experience of life. It’s like my graduate school experience I was describing. The idea of tracking that we so callously do. If we had a society in which the people you were trying to educate were relatively homogeneous, ethnically and in other ways, maybe it wouldn’t be such a big deal, maybe it would make sense to do that. But when you have a system that confounds the measure of ability with ethnic identity and background, that so confounds the two, then something that has a rational basis at one level starts to be extremely destructive at another level. And I think we have to be honest about that with tracking. It emerged, as many of you know, as a “remedy” for integration. This is how we can integrate a school building and not have my kids have to take the same kind of things that other kids have. It doesn’t have a handsome…  It’s camouflaged as an ability thing by virtue of the tests that are used.

I don’t know how to do it. I wish I could give a completely simple succinct solution to this. I can describe it better than I can solve it. There are differences in preparation level that have to be taken into account in teaching, and if you’re a teacher at a school like that you might say, “I don’t care what you say, these kids are going to move a lot faster than these kids,” and so on. My general suspicion, though, is that the tracking system itself is sending so many negative signals to the kids who aren’t favored by that system, that that is what is producing, in big part, the lack of performance and progress in that group. So I think it is becomes a self-fulfilling kind prophesy as time goes on. It’s true for minority kids and it’s true for majority kids. If you get labeled like that in the American school system, you have to contend with that image. It has nothing to do with race but is the same kind of stereotype.

You can watch the whole talk at:  http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/14/11/claude-steele-stereotype-threat

(The discussion about Berkeley HS and U. of Michigan freshman intervention starts at roughly 1:04 on the video.  The question from CRLS student is at roughly 1:32.]

Another valuable resource is by Larry Blum, a UMass/Boston professor of philosophy and parent of 3 CPS/CRLS graduates.  His book is called High Schools, Race, and America’s Future:  What Students Can Teach Us About Morality, Diversity, and Community, and is about his experience teaching a course at CRLS on Race and Racism in the early 2000s.


Prof. Steele has also described his research in his 2010 book, Whistling Vivaldi and Other Cues to How Stereotypes Affect Us: http://hepg.org/her-home/issues/harvard-educational-review-volume-80-number-3/herbooknote/whistling-vivaldi_356


All comments welcome and appreciated.

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