Page tree


San Francisco Unified School District has embarked on an initiative to help improve outcomes for its African American students. As part of an effort to implement President Obama’s initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, like other districts, SFUSD will attempt to accelerate the achievement of African American students through a number of different efforts.


As SFUSD embarks on this new initiative, I would be important to take into consideration some of the research about specific interventions and instructional supports for both students and teachers, which can support improvements in achievement for African American students. Below are profiles of Stanford research projects, some of which is being utilized in SFUSD, which has shown to be effective in accelerating African American student achievement.


Stereotype Threat and Self-Affirmation Interventions

The concept of Stereotype Threat was articulated by Claude Steele, a former Stanford professor and Dean of the Graduate School of Education, and now Provost at UC Berkeley. [1] Stereotype threat is a theory that explains the under performance for groups of people whose abilities are negatively stereotyped in society. In his talk to SFUSD during the Vision 2025 visioning process, Dr. Steele described the concept of stereotype threat. ( Click here to see the full summary Claude Steele’s talk. ) In general, he described that even if groups of people have the same skills when measured by common techniques, when they perform challenging work, groups experiencing stereotype threat don’t perform up to the level of the skills they actually have. Stanford Professor Geoff Cohen went on to develop and test some interventions to overcome stereotype threat, which he refers to as self-affirmation interventions. A recent Stanford-SFUSD Partnership brief describes the effect of one of their interventions by saying, “Cohen et al. found that brief exercises that asked students to write about their core values benefited the GPA of minority students.” [2] This effect was associated with a 40% reduction in the achievement gap, with performance benefits present two years later.”


Complex Instruction

The instructional approach of Complex Instruction stems from Stanford Professors Elizabeth Cohen and Rachel Lotan’s groundbreaking research about group work. In two books, Designing Group Work [3] and Working for Equity in Heterogeneous Classrooms , [4] Cohen and Lotan argue that students’ self-perception of smartness and teachers’ perception of the students influence the students’ participation and access to new content. Teachers overcome perceptions and improve student achievement by using specially designed, rigorous curriculum that requires multiple mathematical abilities and teacher planning that promotes equitable interactions. When using Complex Instruction, teachers focus on mitigating students’ status in their classrooms by using cooperative learning tasks to influence their own perceptions and students’ perceptions of students’ competence. They do this three ways: 1) Provide curricular tasks that are open-ended, rich in multiple abilities, and support learning important mathematical concepts and skills central to a big idea; 2) Raise intellectual expectations for all students, hold individuals and small groups accountable for learning, and intervene in status issues; 3) Develop autonomy of and interdependence within each group through the use of norms, roles, and teacher interventions. (This excerpt about Complex Instruction comes from a longer brief written for the Stanford-SFUSD Partnership. )


Teaching in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Classrooms

The terms culturally and linguistically complex classrooms describes the learning environments that are created when previously segregated groups come together so that there are two or more cultural or linguistic groups in the educational context. 

Many of the teachers assigned to teach diverse students in urban schools lack confidence in their ability to do well in diverse classroom settings, feel uncomfortable interacting with parents from diverse backgrounds, feel inadequately prepared to teach diverse students, and prefer not to be placed in situations where they feel uncomfortable and inadequate. To examine this issue, Stanford Professor Arnetha Ball examined longitudinal data from 1994-2005 focused on teacher professional development in the United States and South Africa, looking at 1) the process of teacher change while participating in a professional development course and 2) teachers’ continued learning and their changing practices after the course ended. [5] The professional development Ball studied is driven by a four-fold theoretical framework: 1) metacognitive awareness can help teacher identify their own barriers to learning, change the strategies they are using to attain their goals, and modify their teaching and learning strategies based on awareness of their effectiveness; 2) Teachers must be given an opportunity for ideological becoming , that is the coming together of new perspectives, new ideas, and new voices as an essential component to a person’s growth; 3) Teacher learning must involve internalization meaning learning occurs in a social plane and internal plane, and efficacy;  4) Teachers must have self-efficacy or the belief in their potential ability to affect positive change in the lives of students. (This excerpt about Teaching in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Classrooms comes from a longer brief written for the Stanford-SFUSD Partnership. )

[1] Steele, C. and Aronson, J. (Nov. 1995) Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African Americans.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 69 (5). P. 797-811; Steele, C. (June 1997). “ A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance.” American Psychologist , Vol 52(6), p. 613-629; Steele, C. (2011). Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Use and What We Can Do . W.W. Norton & Company. Steele and Ar onson, 1995; Steele, C., 1997; Steele, 2011.

[2] Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Apfel, N., & Brzustoski, P. (2009). Recursive processes in self-affirmation: Intervening to close the minority achievement gap. Science , 324, 400-403.

[3] Cohen. E. G. (1994) Designing Group Work: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom. Teachers College Press.

[4] Cohen, E. G. and Lotan, R. A. (1997). Working for Equity in Heterogeneous Classrooms: Sociological Theory into Practice . Teachers College Press.

[5] Ball, A. (2009). Toward a Theory of Generative Change In Culturally and Linguistically Complex Classrooms. American Education Research Journal, (46 (1).