How black students are stereotyped by coverage of achievement gaps

Solutions must shift from student outcomes to dismantling structural inequities that create the gaps
By: | June 16, 2020
TV coverage of achievement gaps leaves viewers with stereotypes that black Americans lack education and are less competent than white students, a new study has found. GettyImages.com/Klaus Vedfelt)TV coverage of achievement gaps leaves viewers with stereotypes that black Americans lack education and are less competent than white students, a new study has found. GettyImages.com/Klaus Vedfelt)

Media reporting school achievement gaps appears to perpetuate racial stereotypes that lead people to blame students—rather than structural racism—for poor academic performance, a new American Education Research Association study has found.

TV coverage of achievement gaps leaves viewers with “exaggerated stereotypes of black Americans as lacking education and may have increased implicit stereotyping of black students as less competent than white students,” says the study by David M. Quinn, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California.

Quinn noted that U.S. presidents and education secretaries have framed the racial achievement gaps as major civil rights issues in order to prioritize equity in education.

“However, researchers have expressed concern that by focusing on student outcomes, rather than on structural inequities that lead to the outcome disparities, this framing assumes a deficit orientation that reinforces stereotypes and has a detrimental effect on public support for policies aiming to end structural inequities,” Quinn says.


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Participants in the study watched either a short TV news story that emphasized gaps in test-scores between black and white students, or a promotional piece created by Promise Academy of Harlem Children’s Zone that portrayed black students as studious and academically ambitious in a healthy school environment.

Participants were then told the national high school graduation rate for white students (about 85% in 2013) and asked to guess the same rate for black students. Those who watched the first report guessed 49.4% while those who saw the promotional piece said 55.7%.

But both groups vastly underestimated the success of black students, who graduated high school at a rate of 78% in 2013.

However, the study found that neither video had an impact on whether the viewers thought closing achievement gaps should be a priority.

It also didn’t change the factors they believed were responsible—such as school quality, student motivation, parenting, discrimination and racism, genetics, neighborhood environments, home environments, and income levels.

“These findings do not mean that we should cease all measuring or reporting on between-group differences in outcomes,” Quinn said. “Rather, what we need is a better understanding of how certain ways of framing inequalities may be more or less impactful on people’s racial attitudes and how we can most productively conduct a public conversation about advancing equitable policy without also perpetuating harmful stereotypes.”


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