In this month's Scientific American science writer Ed Yong explores new research on stereotype threat—the fear of confirming derogatory stereotypes about one's social group. Such anxiety can undermine people's performance in school, sports and the workplace. A girl in an advanced math class, for example, might worry that she will not test as well as the boys, because of the stereotype that boys are better at math. Her concerns might distract her and tax her mental resources so that she performs below her abilities. Similarly, a young white basketball player might play poorly because he is worried that he is not as skilled as his African-American peers. Stereotype threat is one of the explanations for certain achievement gaps.

In recent years researchers have developed surprisingly simple and brief interventions that seem to thwart stereotype threat in actual classrooms. Such interventions include hour-long essay-writing assignments, in which students reflect on what matters to them—boosting their positive self-image and making them resilient against prejudice—or read surveys of older students emphasizing that everyone has difficulty fitting in at first but eventually make friends. In the following essay Geoffrey Cohen and Julio Garcia of Stanford University address current efforts to scale up these interventions to statewide education programs.

Social-Psychological Interventions: Solving the Scaling-Up Problem
By Geoffrey L. Cohen and Julio Garcia
Graduate School of Education and Department of Psychology, Stanford University

Stereotype threat research has shown that intellectual performance is more malleable than previously thought. Subtle changes in the way a test is presented, for instance, can lead to dramatic differences in student performance. This fact affects how we should see the problem of achievement gaps based on race, gender and class in the U.S. The most common explanations for such gaps have focused on differences in academic aptitude and preparation, which explicitly or implicitly assume a view of intellectual performance as relatively fixed or slow to change. The more malleable view of performance offered by stereotype threat research moves us to a more interactive view focused on the relationship between the classroom situation and how it is subjectively experienced by the student.

For example, given their personal and historical experience, minority students may worry that they could be judged or treated through the lens of a negative stereotype, a concern their nonminority peers do not have. This concern can cause stress and mental load that can depress minority students’ performance to a level far below their potential. The cumulative toll of such a threat can be great when encountered repeatedly, day after day in a classroom. While stereotype threat is an important factor for solving the problem of systemic achievement gaps, it is by no means the only factor that if addressed would promote educational equality.

As the article by Ed Yong describes, theory-driven interventions can lessen stereotype threat and improve performance. Interventions using growth mind-set, values affirmation and strategies to buttress students’ sense of belonging in school have, in randomized field experiments, yielded lasting positive benefits on the grades and test scores of ethnic minorities and the exam performance of female students in advanced science courses. These interventions draw on decades of psychological research, target key psychological factors and are highly crafted to fit with local conditions in order to maximize the likelihood of positive impact.

These promising results, however, raise a critical question: How do we scale up social-psychological interventions to reach more than students in a single school, but also those in an entire school district, state or even the entire nation? As Lisbeth Schorr suggested in her books Within Our Reach and Common Purpose, the attention to detail, knowledge of theory and human touch that make interventions work at a small scale can be lost when they are scaled up. In the process key details can also be missed or key elements changed. For instance, values affirmations might have little effect if given in a haphazard way or belonging interventions might do more harm than good if they are seen as offering only platitudes rather than credibly conveying the important message. Finally, it would be foolhardy to assert that social-psychological interventions are magic bullets that work in all places at all times. They are rather context dependent. They work under certain conditions and function as catalysts interacting with existing situational factors. The interventions are not panaceas. Stated differently, the interventions unleash the positive forces already in the student and the environment. They obviously will not compensate for inadequate infrastructure or a violent neighborhood. But they can catalyze large gains under the right conditions, and they may even be necessary for the full benefits of larger reforms to emerge.

Nevertheless, there are potential solutions to issues with scaling up. A controlled, incremental and systematic approach to the application of interventions is a possible path to scaling up interventions. For example, PERTS(, created by doctoral students Dave Paunesku and Carissa Romero of the Department of Psychology at Stanford University, features such an approach. This method uses the Internet to deliver interventions to students. Teachers volunteer to have their students go to computer terminals to complete the interventions in a standardized fashion on designated days. As the procedure for delivering the interventions is highly controlled, the treatment message is given as intended, minimizing the potential for error. Interventions delivered in this manner have yielded reliable increases in GPA in studies of thousands of students across the country—particularly for low-performing ones.

A second potential strategy for scaling up interventions is less controlled but can be transformative. In this strategy educators are trained in the principles behind the practices, and given the interventions as additional tools in their toolbox of strategies. Educators learn the importance of belonging, affirmation, growth mind-sets and the theoretical principles behind them. In collaboration with researchers they receive continual coaching and feedback on what they are doing and whether it aligns with the conceptual goals. Through these efforts educators become more effective at sending the message, in word and deed, that students are valued, seen as belonging and have the potential to meet high performance standards. Following this example might lead to more success stories like that of Jaime Escalante, of Stand and Deliver fame, or that of Xavier University. Escalante continually refuted stereotypes about his low-income Latino students by challenging them to take and pass the AP calculus exam, and as a consequence many of his former students went on to college and successful careers. Xavier University, a historically black university, similarly refutes negative stereotypes through its rigorous premedical program, and the weaving of its philosophy that “intelligence can be taught,” based on psychologist Arthur Whimbey’s work, into its daily practices. In each of these examples the interventions are not one-shot efforts but principles that are made a pervasive aspect of everyday functioning. Similarly, expert tutors are among the most potent educational “interventions” known. They have been shown to produce student performance gains in the vicinity of two standard deviations. The social psychologist Mark Lepper has shown that expert tutors do not focus on a single strategy. Rather, they continually modify and change up their strategies, always with an eye to the general goal of maintaining each student’s self-confidence and motivation to succeed.

These potential strategies for scaling up have benefits and costs. The controlled approach is more reliable: Less can go wrong, increasing the probability that some students’ lives will be changed for the better. The more global approach is more prone to interference that could lessen positive impact, as the gap between the core theoretical construct and the tools used to realize it can be significant. This approach, however, has a greater likelihood to bring about a scientifically informed shift in philosophy that has the potential to transform the educational system for the better.