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Improving Academic Achievement

The Impact of Single-Sex Education

Student test scores at all-boys and all-girls schools tend to be better than at co-ed schools, which has led parents, researchers, and policymakers to advocate transforming co-ed into single-sex schools. IPR labor and education economist Kirabo Jackson studies an experiment in Trinidad and Tobago that converted pairs of public secondary schools that were nearby to one another, similar in size, and low-performing: One became all-boys, and the other, all-girls. Jackson examines the academic and social outcomes of over 124,000 students across seven cohorts who began single-sex education in sixth grade. He demonstrates that boys scored higher on national exams, both boys and girls took more advanced courses, and girls did better on secondary-school completion exams than their peers at co-ed schools. Additionally, boys were 60% less likely to be arrested by the age of 18, and girls were about 40% less likely to have had a baby by the age of 18. What is the mechanism of change? Using survey data he collected, Jackson finds direct and indirect peer effects probably played an important role. He points out that no additional funding was needed to bring about these improved outcomes, in contrast to other methods that achieve comparable results—such as reductions in class size or tutoring—that can be costly. Jackson is the Abraham Harris Professor of Education and Social Policy.


Mesmin Destin
IPR social psychologist Mesmin Destin studies how socioeconomic circumstances influence individual thoughts, identities, and behaviors.

Race, Stress, and Academic Outcomes

How do racial stressors affect sleep and academic outcomes among teenagers? With funding from the Spencer Foundation, IPR development psychobiologist Emma Adam, IPR social psychologist Mesmin Destin, and Adriana Umaña-Taylor of Harvard University are following 300 students at a large, racially and ethnically diverse high school. The researchers are specifically measuring the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as sleep length and quality. They will also assign students to different interventions: One group will participate in an eight-week program that promotes developing a positive self-image related to culture, heritage, and race. Another group will receive eight weekly sessions on college and career planning. Adam, Destin, and Umaña-Taylor plan to examine the impact of the programs on stress biology and sleep, student well-being, and academic outcomes, such as grades and high school graduation rates. The study is funded by the Spencer Foundation. Adam is the Edwina S. Tarry Professor of Human Development and Social Policy.

Racial Identity and Ideology in Schools

Generations of educators have tried to address disparities in achievement between black male students and their peers. In a recent article in the American Educational Research Journal, IPR developmental psychologist Onnie Rogers examined how meritocratic thinking by teachers affects those disparities by interviewing two young, white male teachers in an all-black boys’ high school. Rogers and her co-author look at how the teachers’ own identities serve as a lens through which they see their students. The researchers find that white teachers’ belief in meritocracy — that achievement is a direct result of effort and talent — inhibited their ability to connect with and mentor their black male students. The authors note this disconnection because prior studies show that a personal connection is a key to improving educational outcomes. Rogers and Brooms also show that the teachers’ own self-conceived identities as white and privileged not only separated them from their students but also led them to ascribe academic failure to identities of black males. The authors also highlight that these problematic ideologies persisted among teachers despite the fact that they were teaching in a charter school devoted specifically to the education of black male students. The results of their study suggest that the preparation of white teachers needs to more aggressively question whiteness and the ideological premises of identity to better connect with black male students.



The Role of Socioeconomic Status in Student Mindsets

For many reasons, students from higher socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds tend to do better in school than students from lower SES backgrounds. Students whose mindset—or understanding of themselves and the world—is that intelligence can grow through education and persistence also achieve more academically, compared to students who believe their intelligence is a fixed trait. Some might put these ideas together to suggest that SES can play a role in the development of mindsets or that mindset might even play a role in perpetuating socioeconomic disparities in achievement. IPR social psychologist Mesmin Destin, IPR statistician Elizabeth Tipton, and a group of interdisciplinary scholars in the Mindset Scholars Network directly test these potential emerging assumptions about SES, mindset, and achievement  in AERA Open. Using unique data that measure academic mindset, SES indicators, and student grades from a nationally representative sample of ninth graders, the researchers do find that higher SES students were less likely to have a fixed mindset than students from lower SES backgrounds students. They also confirm that students with a mindset that intelligence is flexible do better in school than those who believe intelligence is fixed, regardless of the student’s SES. Importantly, however, the scholars also estimate that mindset explained only 2% to 7% of the relationship between SES and achievement. They conclude that while mindset is a significant factor in academic performance that may be part of perpetuating inequality, the relationship between SES and academic success is complex and due primarily to root causes related to systemic and structural inequality.