From Demetrius Hobson, Willie Brown Middle School Principal


After attending Office of Access & Equity’s professional development session featuring Stanford University Professor Geoffrey Cohen and his research on social-psychological interventions in education, Willie Brown Middle School Founding Principal, Demetrius Hobson, speaks to the potential of using these interventions to help close the racial achievement gap.


Professor Cohen’s seminar started with a perspective on stereotype threat—a reduction in potential performance when an identity is negatively associated with the context at hand-- that slightly shifted my mindset around the topic: Stereotype threat is not just a “minority issue,” it is a human perception issue. All people can experience stereotype threat. For example, if your boss believes you are not capable of doing your job. You are likely to then exert more psychological effort to overcome the stress of your boss’s perception or altogether distance yourself from your boss’s unwelcoming environment. 


Built on this conceptual foundation are two interventions Cohen highlighted: Wise Criticism and Values Affirmation. Both of these interventions I found to be high leverage, low cost practices. In the study on Wise Criticism, 7 th grade students were given two forms of feedback for a written essay. In addition to regular feedback on the essay content, the intervention included a note to the student stating: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” For me, this intervention just calls on educators to be honest with underperforming students so that they strive to succeed rigorous requirements. When you give false praise, students are overwhelmed with the expectation to perform at a high level, which then triggers stereotype threat again.


The second intervention-- values affirmation-- hit home for me. When I was in 5 th grade, the teacher gave us construction paper and instructions to cut out our school picture, place it on the construction paper, and cut out words from magazines that spoke to us. She told us to tell our life story one word at a time. My story included the phrase: “I’m blessed because I’m wealthy, and I’m wealthy with love.” I remember the praise that my teacher gave me, and how that praise felt. I wanted my students to have that feeling. 


Many years later, as a principal at Matthew Hanson Elementary School in Chicago, a team of teachers and myself incorporated Cohen’s research into our winter break program curriculum. This curriculum targeted the bridge grades (3 rd , 6 th , & 8th)— a time where stereotype threat is triggered more often as a result of high stakes assessments. For the intervention, we provided students space to write about something they do well, something they appreciate, or something they want outside of school. Bringing in these outside experiences to the school setting begins to change students’ experience within the school, especially when the adults validate the students as people. Specifically, we supported students in designing PowerPoints presentations that highlighted who there were in 3-4 slides. Students took over the development of their own PowerPoints presentations. Our initial intention was to disrupt the recursive stereotype threat cycle; I did not expect the intervention would also have an impact on teachers.


One particular 5 th grade girl had a final slide that answered the question: What do you wonder about? She answered: “I wonder what the governor does during his free time?” At that moment a teacher next to me, nudged me and said, “Who would have ever thought that a 5 th grader wonders what the governor does.” I noticed the teacher experiencing a transformation around how he viewed the intellectual curiosity of his students.  At that moment, the intervention felt like it was working just as much for the teacher as it was for the student.


Social-Psychological Research at Willie Brown Middle School


We are going to utilize social-psychological research to influence our day-to-day practices at Willie Brown Middle School. We have been working with Professor Cohen and his team at Stanford to infuse this research into three areas: teacher recruitment, connecting to families, connecting with students.  Below I describe these efforts to bring together this research and practice.


Teacher Recruitment

Our students will be coming in with different experiences from each other in regards to academics, economics, social, etc. We need teachers who have a particular skill set and beliefs that can support all students to grow in our school. We were interested in screening candidates early enough to make sure that candidates interviewed and offered positions were the ones who actually have the mindsets we need to facilitate the building of a community across differences. We wanted to screen for close-mindedness, flexibility, hope, humility, implicit bias, and optimism. Stanford has designed a survey that effectively highlights those areas of interest and concern. We are using this survey to inform our teacher selection process.


Connecting with Families

We surveyed families who attended enrollment sessions to identify the values held across those who had shown interest in the type of school that Willie Brown is poised to become. We are using the expressed values – fun & laughter; growth & discovery; innovation & creativity—to inform the school structure, culture, and instruction. The data from that survey found that families were very concerned with safety; for us, that would mean we need to prioritize building a sense of belonging and community at Willie Brown.


Looking Forward to Connecting with Students

Once Willie Brown opens its doors in the fall, we will continue to implement the social-psychological research throughout the year. We are developing a plan for implementing values affirmation interventions and self-efficacy surveys during high-stakes assessment periods. Along with these interventions, we expect to hold quality professional development sessions in partnership with Stanford to support the application of this research on a more regular basis.

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