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The Washington PostIn a remarkable essay in Young, Gifted, and Black, Stanford psychologist Claude Steele takes this very common coming-of-age experience and turns it into a hopeful solution to the failure of African-American and Hispanic students, even those from middle-class families, to match the academic achievements of whites and Asians as measured by standardized tests. In the 1990s, Steele, with colleagues Joshua Aronson and Steven Spencer, introduced the concept of "stereotype threat." Their experiments showed that minority college students did less well academically when they knew their graders were conscious of the racial achievement gap. Steele says this feeling of mistrust and apprehension leads minorities to do less than their best when "being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype," just like my feeling that as the new kid on The Post's foreign staff I was the most likely to screw up.
Steele's earlier work stated the problem clearly enough. This essay, in just 22 pages, proposes several solutions, as do the other contributions by African-American thinkers in Young, Gifted, and Black. Theresa Perry provides insights into the educational power of the story of the African-American struggle for freedom. Asa Hilliard reflects on why certain schools, and not others, have raised minority achievement. But Steele's research, because it is beginning to be confirmed by other scholars, offers the most promising way to get more young Americans learning at their full capability. — Jay Mathews