Summary: Instead of magic role models we need long-term education investment.
While browsing Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog at The Atlantic Magazine, I stumbled onto his satirical link “Researchers Shocked That Obama’s Mere Presence Doesn’t Make Negroes Smarter.” After assuming I would be led to an Onion article, I arrived at a Newsweek article by Sharon Begley.
In this article, Begley refers to a January New York Times piece, “Study Sees an Obama Effect as Lifting Black Test-Takers.” The article discusses how researchers Dr. Ray Friedman, David M. Marx and Sei Jin Ko documented what they call an “Obama effect,” whereby the achievement gap between Blacks and Whites on a 20-question GRE test administered before Obama’s nomination almost disappeared when the exam was administered after his acceptance speech and again after the presidential election.
Friedman, a management professor at Vanderbilt University, Marx, a professor of social psychology at San Diego State University, and Jin Ko, a visiting professor in management and organizations at Northwestern, submitted their study for review to the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Proponents of the Obama Effect argue that Obama’s existence as a Black role model would help Blacks overcome anxieties about racial stereotypes linked to academics and standardized testing.
First, it is unclear from the Times piece whether there was any reference at all to Obama before the participants took the test. If not, then the story must be that if there was a difference in performance over time it was because Obama was “in the air”…But the more worrisome concern is the quality of the data. Based on the Times article, it seems like there were four tests, and at each occasion there were maybe 20 black participants. Furthermore, the age range of the participants was around 50 years. The degree of sampling variability from occasion to occasion would be huge. Would you trust the results of an opinion poll that gathered a group of 20 participants? It’s all the more problematic that the researchers are trying to prove a lack of difference.
Despite logical doubt in the efficacy of the Obama Effect, why do researchers so ardently need to prove that Obama’s mere existence can cause a seismic shift in closing the achievement gap?
Perhaps society wants to believe that there’s an easy magic “quick fix” solution to big issues rather than engage in the hard work necessary to achieve educational equity. We need to believe in an Obama Effect because it relieves us of responsibility and even guilt. But this is a dark and seductive road that leads to reductionist thinking and shallow policy discussions.
If the only factors stifling the academic achievement of Black children are the lack of in-group role models and self-motivation, and Obama fills both voids, then this talk of education reform seems extraneous. Obama needn’t bother with education reform programs and instead should install speakers throughout urban schools that ritualistically recite his name during state testing!
More than hasty science and irresponsible conclusions, the Obama Effect reflects not only a lazy education policy but the larger discourse of what to do with a seemingly unresponsive “Black America.” If all that is needed to improve academic performance are positive role models, does it mean Education Secretary Arne Duncan is an unnecessary cabinet member?
As a classroom teacher, and one of those Black kids the Obama Effect researchers hoped would be inspired by Obama’s victory, I find irony in premise of the study itself. Interestingly enough, for as much talk as there is about the danger of stereotypes in academic achievement, the Obama Effect research relies on the stereotype of a monolithic Black community. There is an assumption that the “Black community” universally supports Obama and should be inspired by Obama simply because of his racial background. What if a student views Michael Steele as a more suitable role model than Obama, how does this complicate this research?
The Obama Effect was temporarily zapped of its supernatural powers this month in Begley’s latest article “No O Effect?” which admitted that a new more thorough study found that Obama’s doesn’t influence blacks’ test scores. Begley once anchored her belief in the Obama Effect to one anecdotal media report — a one minute clip from a five minute NPR broadcast where a social studies teacher at Howard University Middle School in Washington reported that her black students got better at completing their homework after Obama won the Democratic nomination.
She now cites opposing research supported by the National Science Foundation and scheduled to be published in the July issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, which argues, at least for now, the impotence of the Obama Effect. Psychologist Joshua Aronson of New York University discovered:
When black students are prompted to think about Obama before they take a challenging standardized verbal test, their scores did not improve relative to white students’ compared to when they did not receive the prompt. And they did no better than black students not prompted to think about Obama.
Aronson had 119 undergrads take the 24-question verbal section of the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). All students were in a summer program for future medical school applicants and they took the test early last summer, when Obama had secured the Democratic nomination. Before the test, the students were given a survey designed to encourage thinking about the positive qualities of Obama or John McCain, or neither for the control condition. The results, White students got a median of 18.7 questions right while Black students got 14, undermined the Obama Effect championed only months ago.
Begley expressed surprise when black college students test scores did not improve. In January, prior to changing her point of view about Obama’s effect she wrote:
On only the fourth day of his presidency, it’s obviously way too soon to assess whether Barack Obama’s effect on African-Americans will extend beyond providing hope and inspiration. Will he, for instance, goad black students to higher achievement, since he is living proof that working hard can pay off? One intriguing hint of what researchers led by Ray Friedman of the Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management calls the Obama Effect suggests that maybe, just maybe, Obama will do more for the scholastic achievement of African-Americans than anything since Brown v. Board of Education.
However, there is nothing particularly new about the Obama Effect. It’s merely a repackaging of the aged meritocracy and self-motivation discourse — a discourse that distances itself from any interrogation of institutional factors that affect academic achievement. Begley’s use of the word “goad” implies that Black kids are sitting around waiting for the election of Obama to begin “working hard.” Furthermore, in suggesting that Brown v. Board of Education pales in comparison to Obama’s victory implies that legislative efforts have been fruitless, if not a poor use of time.
Fast-forward three months. Begley ends her recent bubble-bursting article with, “Alas, not even Obama can eliminate ‘psychological predicament predicated on generations of negative stereotyping,’ as the scientists call it.'”
Her use of the word “alas” illustrates a clear sorrow over the impotence of the “Obama Effect.” Even more disturbing, the use of the word “alas” implies additional sorrow — a feeling that the last opportunity for Black redemption missed, for if Obama cannot “uplift” and “save” these folks, who or what can. What magical incantations or superheroes can we summon next?
To conclude, we can harp on about the methodological gaps of the primary Obama Effect research or the problematic assumptions that spur the research. However, what’s more important is the harmful belief in the alleged magic qualities of Obama’s presidency. While this desire for quick change is somewhat commendable, it is insincere and unrealistic. Such an expectation relieves us of any responsibility. Clearly, the state of Black academic achievement is urgent, however, going down the easiest route will not solve endemic issues. We tried the easy route with No Child Left Behind, and look where that has led us.