Blog: The Educated Reporter

Guest Post: Stanford Ed School Dean Claude Steele on Stereotype Threat in Academics

EWA’s 66th National Seminar, held at Stanford University, took place earlier this month. We asked some of the journalists attending to contribute posts from the sessions. The majority of the content will soon be available at EdMedia Commons. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing a few of the posts, including the ones from our keynote sessions. Nanette Asimov, higher education reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, is today’s guest blogger.

Consider this mystery: Black students and other subjects of negative stereotyping, like girls in math class, typically score lower than their peers on exams—even if they are demonstrably smart and grew up in privileged environments.

“Why should that be?” asked social psychologist Claude Steele, dean of Stanford Graduate School of Education, posing the question to a few hundred journalists gathered at Stanford University for the Education Writers Association conference on May 2.

The enigma has driven Steele’s research for long enough that the answers are clear, if not yet widely known. When students care deeply about a test they’re taking, Steele said, they internalize stereotypes about themselves—and it throws them off their game. “You know you could be judged, and the prospect of being seen that way is distracting,” he said. He calls it the “stereotype threat.”

Don’t believe it?

In an experiment, a bunch of brainy math students each took a tough math test alone in a room, and the women scored 15 points lower than the men, Steele said. (“The Larry Summers” phenomenon, he said, drawing laughter.) But how to prove that genetics wasn’t the cause?

By removing the “stereotype threat” effect. In the next experiment, Steele’s researchers told the women: “Look, you may have heard that women don’t do as well. That’s not true for the test you’re taking today.”

Voila! Women’s performance equaled that of the men, Steele said.

Again and again, experiments prove you can excise the stereotype threat, he said. In another example, researchers told black test-takers that “this is just a puzzle—have as much fun as you can.

“As soon as you have that instruction in place, blacks scored exactly the same as whites,” Steele said.

Can the stereotype threat be eliminated outside the lab?

Steele said it could. He told the journalists that New York Times columnist Charles Blow, an African-American, had felt uncomfortable while a grad student at the University of Chicago and wondered what to do about it. “He realizes he’s being seen through the lens of a stereotype,” Steele said.

So Blow tried something unexpected: He whistled Vivaldi whenever he walked across campus. Suddenly, “people don’t see him through that lens—he’s just another grad student,” Steele said. “So there are artful, magnificent ways people get around these threats.” Steele was so taken with Blow’s story that he titled his 2010 book on the stereotype threat “Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us.”

In the Q&A, several journalists asked which other groups might experience the effect: Disabled? Yes. Elderly? Sure. Men? Well, if the ingredients are right—high personal interest and low external expectations—yes.

Just one question challenged Steele’s conclusions. A black journalist suggested that Steele, who is also black, was “blaming the victims for folks who are underperforming.” Steele said he hoped not. “The only mistake they’ve made is to care about their performance.”