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The racial performance gap explained

by Mark on July 26, 2011 10:23 PM on Education

In 1974 Phillip Uri Treisman, a calculus teacher at Berkeley, received the visit of two graduate students. The purpose of their visit was to videotape Prof. Treisman's class.

He had been rated as either one of the ten best or ten worst teachers in Berkeley, and he didn't know which. They wanted to study if other teachers could identify good teachers from the bad ones. Prof. Treisman couldn't know if he was in the top or bottom 10.

Prof. Treisman had been had been trying to get his students interested in Math through collaboration and creative problem solving, innovative techniques at the time. The students had met his experiments with certain reluctance: "is this going to be on the test?" they would ask. He had no idea if he was a good or a bad teacher.

Turns out he was one of the good ones, as he was given a grant to study why there was a performance gap in Black and Hispanic students. It was a problem that had been bothering some time, and he was willing to tackle it head on.

He would start by surveying his colleagues for possible hypothesis, and he found four widely-held beliefs:

  1. Minority students are not as motivated as other groups
  2. They come unprepared, as they often enter university with fewer credit hours of science and math.
  3. Their families lack a strong cultural and intellectual background, and thus lack understanding of the importance of higher education.
  4. That the income gap reflects on the educational gap, and if those variables are controlled there would be no performance gap.

All these beliefs sound reasonable, however, when they started looking at actual data, they noticed they were entirely wrong. Being an elite university, minority students, especially black students, had to make huge social sacrifices to be able to get accepted into Berkeley. Motivation was not the problem, it was disorientation.

They were also surprised to find that, among Black students, calculus grades correlated negatively with good math grades in high school. Black men with high SATs often faced academic dismissal. It was the students in the middle range who were the best math students in university.

They interviewed the families of the students to find if that was the cause of their poor performance. What they found was a strong network of support, that they had made a conscious effort into getting their kids into college, and quite a few of them were college graduates too.

Perhaps the most unexpected finding was that family income was negatively correlated with performance. This is because many of the poorest students come from families where the parents would work in public schools and don't earn much, but had a long standing tradition of education.

So, after going through all the data and interviews, they were at a blank state again. They decided to do some ethnographic research: follow the students around, videotape them in the least conspicuous way possible, let them grow to their presence.

So they decided to follow a group of Chinese students and a group of Black students. Black students would go to class, take notes, study eight hours per week, and then fail. What was surprising was the difference they saw with the Chinese students:

They studied calculus for about 14 hours a week. They would put in 8 to 10 hours working alone. In the evenings, they would get together. They might make a meal together and then sit and eat or go over the homework assignment. They would check each others' answers and each others' English. If one student got an answer of "pi" and all the other got an an answer of "82", the first student knew that he or she was probably wrong.

It was interesting to see how the Chinese students learned from each other. The would edit one another's solutions. A cousin or an older brother would come in and test them. They would regularly work problems from old exams, which are kept in public file in the library.

Based on these findings, Prof. Treisman obtained funding for creating what was essentially a "learning group". Berkeley had previously tried to enroll minority students in optional preparation courses, but he knew that minority students dismissed them as something for underperforming students.

His learning group was—in essence—a place to tackle problems to together.

Most visitors to the program thought that the heart of our project was group learning. They were impressed by the enthusiasm of the students and the intensity of their interactions as they collectively attacked challenging problems. But the real core was the problem sets which drove group interaction. One of the greatest challenges that we faced and still face today was figuring out suitable mathematical tasks for the students that not only would help them to crystalize their emerging understanding of the calculus, but that would show them the beauty of the subject.

We were able to convoke the students in our orientation that success in college would require them to work with their peers, to create for themselves a community based on shared intellectual interests and common professional aims. However, it took some doing to teach them how to work together. After that, it was really rather elementary pedagogy.

The results of this program were surprising: Black and Latino participants outperformed not only their minority peers, but their White and Asian classmates as well. Black students with Math SAT scores in the low-600s were performing comparably to White and Asian students whose Math SATs where in the mid-700s.

Here is Prof. Treisman's first hand ccount (PDF) if you're interested in learning more.


July 28, 2011 9:53 AM

This is fascinating, thanks for the article. It's incredible how the slightest change can make such a huge difference to our learning experience, and I think you've hit the nail on the head—group encouragement and positive feedback loops. Looking forward to seeing how you implement this in your own site.

July 28, 2011 11:19 AM

I spent my 20s working in racial justice work and I think there is something lurking in the solution that is subsumed in the obvious (and structurally unsustainable) racial outcomes in education, health, wealth, etc.

What is it about American values (rugged individualism) and the outcomes these kids are facing?

What is interesting to me is the 'stickiness' of the adopted Culture and social networks. Put another way, do the ideals of collaboration, found in the Chinese students, fade away with each subsequent generation of living here, in favor of more individualistic-norms?

July 28, 2011 12:10 PM

Reminded of my experience in "Math Excell". We were 1 section of 6 in a large lecture format calculus class. Normal sections 2 hours of lecture and 1 hour of lab where a grad student worked through class problems. Our section had 2 hours of lecture and 6 hours of lab with grad students where the students worked through exam level problems. The grad student almost never solved a problem, we students had to help each other through it. End of semester everyone in the section had an "A" but the class average was "C-". Best math class of my life.

July 28, 2011 2:18 PM

Really unfortunate that you lump all black students into a monolithic whole. Perhaps, if you were to separate African students (esp. Nigerians) from African American students, you would notice that there's almost no achievement gap between Asian students and African immigrant students. I suspect the same applies to blacks from the Caribbean.

The gap is due to cultural, not racial, issues. Please spread the word and stop perpetuating the myth of black academic inadequacy due to race. And, stop treating blacks as perpetual victims. Pay attention. We are not.

July 28, 2011 3:49 PM

Ben I think you got the point of this essay completely wrong. No one said anybody was a victim of anything. The author pointed out some interesting facts regarding educational disparities within a group of black and latino students @ Berkley. The author never mentioned the continent of Africa, nor the country of Nigeria. Please read the essay again, you may actually decipher the authors true intent. I am a Black American & this is my point of view.

July 28, 2011 4:25 PM

This research just exposes something completely obvious.

If you put more time into something, you will get better at it.

If you spend your time having other people guide you and teaching you the ropes rather than banging your head against the wall, you will learn quicker.

July 28, 2011 4:40 PM

Demetrius, not so. I got it completely right.

Black students at Berkeley include black people of African descent from different backgrounds.

Black students from Africa do not have the same academic problems that black students born and raised in America have. In fact, Nigerians have the highest educational attainment of ANY group in America.

Portraying African students as victims of poor studying habits misses the mark by far.

The title of this article includes the phrase "racial performance gap." Couching subpar performance of some black students in terms of race ignores that fact that black immigrants thrive in American universities.

The problem is one of culture, not race. If you must look at black performance, look at the effects of culture instead of painting an entire race with the stigma of subpar performance.

Looking at race and income in order to explain the "performance gap", while ignoring cultural background, scores PC points but skews results and is intellectually dishonest.

Fix black culture in America (send it back to the fifties and sixties) and you'll largely eliminate the "performance gap."

July 29, 2011 2:34 AM

Blacks are just less intelligent than other races due to genetics. You can cite some tiny insignificant anecdote that suggests otherwise but it doesn't refute the mountains of evidence that has more or less established this as scientific fact. Did Yao Ming prove that the Chinese are as gifted as blacks at basketball? If you think so, I'll gladly make a wager with you on whether the Chinese will be dominating the NBA any time soon.

Adoption studies are the absolute best you can scientifically hope for while still retaining a modicum of ethics, and they show substantial differences in intelligence, on average of course, between different racial groups.

And no, Nigerians aren't any different. African immigrant education stats look good because they are self-selected (the elite of Africa) and they benefit from the massive "affirmative action" racial preferences given to blacks. However, when you look at their objective accomplishments (or rather, the complete lack thereof) you will see that this education success is illusory.

There are obviously various ways you can react to this information, and there are certainly many valid perspectives on what exactly should be done about it, if anything. But to keep denying it in the face of the mountains of evidence is just chasing a naive utopian pipe dream, and that always leads to disaster. You cite a tiny unscientific study (where's the control group?) from 20 years ago... Where are the fruits of this revelation? Where are the black scientists? There are none of note. All that has happened in the intervening decades is that we've doubled down on racial preferences and buried our heads even deeper in the sand.

July 29, 2011 4:47 AM

A response to Ben,

The point of the paper was to look for reasons why there are differences among minorities in the U.S. In that context, when they say black they mean African American, not African.

Some of this stuff should be obvious. There is no reason to include Africans in such a study although by definition they may be part of the black minorities.

As an African I can tell you the majority of the African students you find in the U.S are either there on scholarships meaning they are among the best in their home countries. Or they come from upper middle class and above African families and their parent can sacrifise A LOT to pay for a western college education.

Either way, BOTH categories of Africans probably went to some of the best schools in their countries; they could have gone through a British-like system, very rigorous and competitive; then they landed in the U.S. Definitely these students are going to perform much better than their American black, hispanic or white counterparts or even Africans with a refugee background.

You and I know that if you are African and doing any first year science (physics, chemistry, math, biology) course in a U.S college you are just repeating stuff you did in high school. So very easy material for the Africans, but it wasn't the case when they encountered it the first time around.

For a matter of fact, I went through what I have described and I unbelievably aced my first year in a U.S. college, was still the best in the subsequent years, but it was never lost on me why it is that I excelled.

So Ben, stressing as exceptional the African students in U.S colleges is a moot point, they/we are not exceptional at all. In fact I have more respect for the American classmates I had. This is even though I did better than all of them all of the time. For I knew how to take exams, do problem sets and basically get good grades. The education system in my African country (in which I went to some of the handful of good schools) taught me that. But, I did not learn to think creatively until my final undergraduate year. In fact, I didn't even think it mattered. However, my American classmates were much more creative. The respect. In the workplace or graduate school doing research, creativity carries more weight than A+s.

Ben, you should spend a little more effort thinking things through and understanding context. Be careful when you label a group you may belong to or one you think represents you as superior. It may be lacking in a way that is lost on you, it may never have been the subject at hand or simply no body gives damn.

July 29, 2011 6:53 AM

To Mike,

Your reasoning is absolute nonsense. First read my response to Ben. If I said I was a black scientist, you would cry self-selected. But to me that wouldn't even constitute a valid response, although I happen to be one. Though not of "note", I still have time to work hard at that, I just got my doctorate at 26. But a smarter East European girl in my department was 24, you still don't have a point.

I must say I am not the cream of the crop, but my ego may desire that wrong. The African students who end up in the U.S are not the cream of the crop. They are just the ones who went to the few good schools. The selection happens even before they get in those few good schools.

The "cream of the crop" selection was the case in the colonial era, at least under British colonies and protectorates. I speak of what I know.

Look at Obama's father, he probably was one them. A village boy goes to a colonial/missionary school where every school was a colonial/missionary school and every boy was a village boy. That one village boy is smarter than his peers and he excels in the colonial administration exams. These exams were set at Oxford or Cambridge and were taken all over the U.K. and it's colonies, and it's protectorates, that mighty empire on which the sun never set. If adjudged to have done well, the village boy must then be really smart, on a global scale smart. The colonial governor hands him a scholarship to the best the U.K. can offer (Cambridge or Oxford). If the country had many globally certified smart village boys and the country allocated scholarship quota for the year is over, then they may send that unlucky village boy to a not so top of the line American university, like somewhere in Hawaii. You get the drift?

Currently there is no system that would allow smart Africans (cream of the crop) to bubble up and end up in the U.S. Only ones from at least the middle class (which is very small) could end up in the U.S. And they do so by having their middle class parents sacrifice any retirement plans. Zero college debt but ma and pa will depend on you, well If they live long enough, ma probably will. The African students all know this hence cannot slack around in College. Even majority of those who make it due to ill gotten gains (being candid here) by their corrupt parents work hard.

If you look closer this is a parallel to the same kids that do well at school in the U.S, compared to their social-economically disadvantaged counterparts. Situations are never completely parallel you can carelessly nit pick, but as long as it is careless you are seen for what you are, obtuse. You want to see some magic. Go to International schools in Africa, where black/white expatriates or the very wealthy send their kids. There is no magic to see, everyone is boring equal.

Adoption studies!!! List them. Do they control for all the factors like white kids being adopted by all classes of black parents. You state these reasons in abstract noun forms; like "adoption studies" "mountains of evidence" "established as scientific fact" "scientifically hope" "mass affirmative action" "objective accomplishments" "success is illusory", that is a sign of bull shitting.

Black people are not any less intelligent.

July 29, 2011 9:17 AM

Honestly, while I am excited for the x number of Nigerians who are attaining educational success.

I am disappointed that you're argument cant see for forest because of the trees. When I think of all of the people of color from the African Diaspora, as well as Black Americans we know that there is a pervasive achievement gap between us/ and wealthy whites and /asians. On the flip if you extracted the data and looked at Southeast Asians(Hmong, Cambodian, Laotian) you would see data is just as horrible as african americans. Extolling one group as amazing just reinforces certain stereotypes that exist within the world instead of forcing people within the conventional school system to look at their biases.

At the end of the day, I think this article serves as a guidepost for how people of color can unite and work together versus trying to make it alone. Plus it's dope.

July 29, 2011 12:56 PM


You state that African students in America "... are among the best in their home countries." This may apply to students from a FEW African countries but it does not apply to students from the majority of African countries.

For example, most Nigerian students in America (including many Nigerian students at elite American universities) were students who could NOT get into the core Nigerian Federal universities.

In the 1960s and 1970s, African governments gave scholarships to a connected few; and wealthy parents sponsored the rest. These days, most African students self-finance their college education in America.

African governments are unwilling to spend large sums of money educating a few when that money could be better spent improving their own universities; especially since it's now clear that sending students abroad to study does not help the sponsoring country in the near to medium term.

African students are not superior to any other group. I am simply arguing that if a culture supports and demands rigorous scholarship, rigorous scholarship you shall get. If a culture elevates flash over substance, don't be surprised if performance suffers in environments that demand substance.

Black Americans are equally endowed by our Creator to achieve everything other racial groups achieve. We are all born with the same ability to achieve. Unfortunately, contemporary black American culture is a destructive force that kills growth potential outside sports and "entertainment."

And, let's just ignore the circular reasoning troll. He'll bite off his tail soon enough.

October 8, 2011 4:10 PM

In the spirit of the above article, you may just want to check some spelling!

"It was interesting to see how the Chinese students learned from each other. The would edit one another's solutions."

It should be They.

I think there's a couple of other mistakes I forgot to note, not too sure if this is all part of your experiment though. :)

October 11, 2011 10:47 AM

Mike: "Blacks are just less intelligent than other races due to genetics. You can cite some tiny insignificant anecdote that suggests otherwise but it doesn't refute the mountains of evidence that has more or less established this as scientific fact."

LOL, the only "fact" here is that some random Mike on the internet has to be quite ignorant, if he really believes that there's a wide scientific consensus on how to define and measure intelligence, let alone correlate it to genetic factors...

January 9, 2012 2:03 PM

Mike "And no, Nigerians aren't any different. African immigrant education stats look good because they are self-selected (the elite of Africa) and they benefit from the massive "affirmative action" racial preferences given to blacks. However, when you look at their objective accomplishments (or rather, the complete lack thereof) you will see that this education success is illusory."

What an ignorant troll. I know a lot of these Nigerians and they are by no means elites. Some could not even get into schools here.

They succeeded out of sheer determination and probably good upbringing. Some can't come back home as failures and therefore gave all that was required. Is that determination not one of the basic ingredient of success in for all human groups?

I suspect you are a failure and a loser in real life and only looking at group achievement to boost your ego

March 21, 2012 8:00 PM

WOW! This really is intense! Cheers! :)

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