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Study Links Obama Presidency, Spike In Test Scores

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Study Links Obama Presidency, Spike In Test Scores


Study Links Obama Presidency, Spike In Test Scores

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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TONY COX, host:

This is News & Notes. I'm Tony Cox. Even before the president was inaugurated, an elementary school in Long Island, New York, had changed its name in his honor. Ludlum Elementary became Barack Obama Elementary due to the popular demand. It's one example of how inspirational Mr. Obama's presidency has been. Today, our series on the Obama effect continues with a look at the impact on education. Ray Friedman is a professor of management at Vanderbilt University. He and his colleagues recently conducted a study that found a direct link between President Obama's election and a rise in scores among black student test-takers. Ray Friedman joins us now. Welcome.

Dr. RAY FRIEDMAN (Management, Vanderbilt University): Hello.

COX: Your study is called "The Obama Effect: How a Salient Role Model Reduces Race-Based Performance Differences." Now, this is based on research dealing with something, I understand, called stereotype threat. Where does that "phrase stereotype" threat come from, and what does it mean?

Dr. FRIEDMAN: Well, "Stereotype Threat" was a study done by Claude Steele at Stanford University about a decade ago. And the question is, if you have a set of, in that case, Stanford undergrads, who were roughly performing equally on tests, could there be a situation where, if you make them think that you're watching to see if they're black or white, that some kind of anxiety would produce a decrease in performance by black students? Yeah, and the idea would be if there's a stereotype against your group - in this case, against blacks - there would be a concern that if your performance is bad, it doesn't reflect on you, but might, in fact, reflect badly on blacks overall.

COX: So, how is the test structured to make a person think about race? Give us the specifics of how that's done.

Dr. FRIEDMAN: Well, it takes some very simple things, just asking a question at the beginning of the test, saying, are you black, white, Asian, signals to the test-taker that the person who's reading the test is looking for the race of the test-taker.

COX: Now, in your results, you found that before the nomination of Barack Obama and after the election of Barack Obama, there was a closing of the achievement gap. Is that correct?

Dr. FRIEDMAN: That's right. Before - we had four points in time where we gave people a test, about 100 adults in this case, and about 20 were black. And before Obama was formally nominated, there was about a three-point difference in the number of correct responses on the test. Immediately after the inauguration - I'm sorry - immediately after his convention speech, those people who saw the speech, the black-white difference was reduced to almost zero.

COX: Now, critics say that there was insufficient time to authenticate the kinds of changes you found in your study and that a longer test period and perhaps a larger test group are needed.

Dr. FRIEDMAN: Well, there's - you'd always like to have a larger test sample, but we did have a statistically significant difference before - at certain points in time that went away at other points in time, and we had a large enough sample to be scientifically valid. Our underlying mechanism is really a role model. And we know from past studies that if you have this same test on where a person is in the room who counters the stereotypes that they might be worrying about, for example, a black, advanced Ph.D/ student in front of the room, that would counter the stereotype and cause an improvement in test score.

COX: Well, the stereotypes, though, this is presuming that the stereotype that is put in front of them is a positive one. What would happen, let's say - let me put it this way; does this all depend on Mr. Obama maintaining a high level of esteem in the eyes of people?

Dr. FRIEDMAN: Right. I mean, it could be that we know we had an effect immediately after his election. We don't know whether this will persist over time. It could be that if he becomes less popular, that the effect goes away. It could be that right after State of the Union speeches, he has a stronger effect. It could be a sustained effect. We don't really know. And it's - what's clear is that in our data, it helps students, people who are basically good performers - this is not taking someone who's never had algebra and making them suddenly pass algebra - but for those people who are doing well in school, the stereotype-threat effect can reduce performance among otherwise well-prepared students.

COX: My last question is this. I appreciate your coming on. Is Obama singular in the kind of effect that he's had? There have been other positive black role models, I would assume, that could've been used in this regard. But is he special in some way?

Dr. FRIEDMAN: Well, certainly, there have been lots - we know that even having someone who's, let's say, a black Ph.D. student in a room could help test-takers. So, there's lots of established role models in the black community. Obama is simply the most broadly displayed, the most worldwide displayed, black figure, I think, in recent times. So, he had a chance to have an outsized effect. But of course, many other black role models, if they're in the minds of the people taking tests, can have a benefit.

COX: Ray, thank you very much.

Dr. FRIEDMAN: You're welcome.

COX: Ray Friedman is a professor of management at Vanderbilt University. His research made headlines recently when he showed that black test scores rose as Barack Obama was nominated and elected president of the United States. He joined us from his office in Nashville.

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