New Research Shows Positive Interventions Help Latino Students Confront the 'Stereotype Threat'

Research suggests that the practice of many teachers reflects inherent, covert stereotypes about Latino students. The students face marginalization because of their race or ethnicity and also because of interrelated characteristics like gender, class and sexuality. These structural, organizing factors ultimately determine educational access, opportunity, and one's general well being in institutional settings.

When Latino students struggle against systematic racist, sexist and classist practices in schools, it has a negative impact on their academic performance. A recent Stanford University study demonstrates how the use of positive intervention strategies by teachers can significantly enhance the learning outcomes of Latino students while simultaneously challenging the "stereotype threat" which Latino students face.

Although multicultural education has sometimes proven to be an effective means of supporting the school experiences of students of color, this study shows that psychological intervention has a positive impact on the academic achievement of Latino students. The research indicates that Latino middle school students who practiced certain affirmation activities achieved higher academic outcomes than those in the control group. It was also found to be a successful tactic in reducing the stress associated with feeling stigmatized due to perceived intellectual inferiority due to one's ethnicity.

In one assignment, students were asked to reflect on the things in their lives they considered most important. In another assignment, they wrote a brief essay identifying their values and the role they would play in their future decision-making. The activities were facilitated throughout the year during times considered to be more stressful, such as before taking a test. This is not a novel idea; helping students build a positive self-concept is generally considered a good teaching practice. Yet, in this case, these self-affirmation activities did not have an impact on white students. These results indicate the need to advance the thinking on how educators can become fully aware of their biases and improve the schooling experience for Latino students.

As the largest and fastest growing "minority" group in the United States, Latinos are the most poorly educated and have the highest high school dropout rates. More than 40 percent of Latinos over 20 do not have a high school diploma. Their educational progress underscores the urgent need to identify the ways to advance the academic success of Latino students. According to Stanford professor Geoffrey Cohen, "Latino Americans are under a more consistent and chronic sense of psychological threat in the educational setting than their white counterparts on average. They constantly face negative stereotypes about their ability to succeed, so they are the ones to benefit the most from affirmations that help them to maintain a positive self-image."

The lack of support systems that promote academic achievement of Latino students fails to ignite the social change that is needed for Latino students to be successful. Schools and teachers also need the kind of support that will enable them to sustain a critical anti-racist position in order to combat the "stereotype threat" facing Latino students. This study illuminates the critical and unrecognized need for teachers to acknowledge their own racial identity and how this affects their relationships and expectations of Latino students. For the United States to benefit from cultural diversity, its learning communities can no longer fail to educate communities of color or maintain complicity in race and economic privilege among students and teachers.