Monday, August 11, 2014

I think, therefore I learn

Source: US Census Bureau
Minorities in the US have a much higher chance of living in poverty than Whites. This has not changed materially for 40 years (Figure 1). In other words, poverty persists.

To tackle the inequality debate head on, we need to address this racial divide, starting by shifting the mindset of minority children themselves. Children show a strong understanding of racial stereotypes from an early age. By 3, they are aware of ethnicity and gender. By 6, they begin to infer beliefs held by an individual. By 10, they are able to relate these beliefs to a more broadly-held stereotype (McKown and Weinstein, 2003). 
These stereotypes become self-fulfilling.

"Stereotype threat", as this is known, is a belief that an outcome is pre-determined by the student's background. Experiments have shown that reminding children that they are black before they sit a test reduces their subsequent score. The same is true for females and other minorities. It is no wonder then that Black and Hispanic students are more likely to drop out of high school, despite the overall improvement to completion rates (Figure 2). They think they are going to perform badly. Therefore, they do. 

Source: US Department of Commerce, Census Bureau,
Current Population Survey (CPS)
But children can be persuaded to change perceptions about themselves. This comes from a realisation that intrinsic ability is not fixed or pre-determined by their ethnic background. For example, middle-school minority students who were encouraged to believe that knowledge and intelligence are malleable - that they can be grown over time - showed an improvement in test scores (Good, Aronson and Inzlicht, 2003). First-year college students who received letters from older students about their initial struggles and the way in which they overcame them, in turn were less likely to fall behind. 

These interventions are not costly. They can be carried out within the school or college gates, by teachers or older students (as David Yeager at the University of Texas has shown). But they are exceptionally powerful. By breaking the perceived link between background and intelligence, it is more likely that minority groups will do better at school and develop the emotional and psychological tools they need to succeed in the workplace. In time, this could go a long way in breaking the inter-generational persistence of poverty. 

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