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Racial and Ethnic Identity Across the High School Years

A socially contextualized model of racial identity

Can racial/cultural identity bolster academic performance and behavior? In a series of studies (Oyserman, Bybee, & Terry, in press; Oyserman et al., 1995; Oyserman & Harrison, 1998; Oyserman, Kemmelmeier, et al., in press; Oyserman, Terry, & Bybee, 2002) using experimental and survey methodologies, we found evidence for the impact of African American identity on school performance, school attachment and possible selves. 

When identity is made salient, youths whose sense of self contains three identity components - connectedness, awareness of racism, and embedded achievement - persist longer at school tasks than other youths. 

Being high in all three components of African American identity significantly predicted more time spent in homework and an increase in study time over the school year. In contrast, youth low in all three identity components spent less time studying and reported decreased time spent in homework over the school year. 

Repeated measures analysis showed that youths high in ethnic identity components were more likely to develop "balanced" academic possible selves across the school year. Identity also predicted performance on standardized tests and grade point average. Finally, we have shown that African American identity buffers decline in academic efficacy over the school year (Oyserman, Harrison, & Bybee, 2001).

Can the racial-ethnic identity model be generalized?

We found that racial/cultural identity relates to academic outcomes not only for African American youths, but also for Hispanic, American Indian and Arab Israeli youths (Oyserman , Kemmelmeier, Fryberg, Brosh, & Hart-Johnson, in press). Among African American, Hispanic and American Indian middleschool youth, when racial identity includes both the in-group and larger society, academic performance improves across the academic year. We've replicated this finding with American Indian and Arab Israeli samples.

Can the research be translated into a preventive intervention?

The School-To-Jobs (STJ) intervention was developed with NIMH funding. The goal was to integrate my previous research on possible selves and ethnic identity with research and intervention efforts with hard-to-reach and underserved populations. I utilized a social cognitive intervention approach based on basic social psychological theory and research into the nature of information processing and motivation. I hoped to develop a sequence of activities and tasks that provide youth with experiences creating and detailing a more explicit "self-guide" and give them initial skills to engage in and put effort into school. I reasoned that improving self-guides and effort would result in better outcomes that would influence self-guides and effort over time.

Activities were designed to make academic achievement a self-gu ide with clear strategies to achieve a positive academic self in the short run and to connect that self to one's desired adult self in the long run. I sought ways to include parents and community members in order to anchor youth in an adult worldview and provide skills to obtain support from adults. STJ activities connect between being African American and succeeding in school concretize a positive connection to the Afr ican American community, and set out the notion that roadblocks and obstacles can be considered and alternatives planned.

STJ as an after-school program

Initially, STJ was tested as an after-school program with seven youth sessions and two sets of parents-with-youth sessions (Oyserman, Terry, & Bybee, 2002). At the end of the school year, STJ and control youth differed on GPA, school bonding, concern about school and academic possible selves, controlling for prior GPA, sex, cohort and baseline levels of each dependent variable. We tested each dependent variable for the possibility of a gender by STJ two-way interaction effect and found a gender interaction effect only for our measure of avoiding trouble in school.

A randomized experimental trial

Deborah Bybee, Kathy Terry, and I completed a randomized field trial of STJ as an in-school, selective prevention intervention with extremely disadvantaged inner city youth and documented high fidelity. Our findings show significant effects on attendance, grades, in-school behavior and time spent doing homework as well as on self concept. Effects on attendance and behavior are significant at both 8th and 9th grade, and the trajectory over time shows a significantly increasing disparity between STJ and control youths for time spent in homework, in-class behavior and grades. 

Sample: To test the effects of STJ during the school day, our sample was the entering cohort of eighth graders (n= 189 African American, n=46 Hispanic, n=2I non-Hispanic white) in three inner city Detroit middle schools in fall 2000. The targeted schools served low-income families (67.3% of students received free or reduced lunch, over a third of households were below the poverty line and only 40o/o of adults were employed [2000 U.S. Census]). During October and November, 30 youth left school. By spring, 20% of the sample had transferred or were not in school. Over the first two years, 45.2% of students moved at least once, with an average of 1.54 moves per mobile student. 

Procedure: STJ was provided twice a week for six weeks. Experimental group participants attended 80-90% of the in-school sessions; 40% of parents attended one or both parent sessions. We trained observers to rate the sessions using behavioral checklists as well as end-of-session global ratings. A high level of fidelity was found, with no significant differences between trainers. Only four youth were lost to follow-up by the spring of 9th grade; information from at least one source was obtained for 98.5% of the intention to-treat sample.

Summary of results: Regard ing attendance, the STJ group has an average of 3.5 fewer unexcused absences per semester, according to school records, a difference main tained over two years which was significant in the total intention-to-treat sample, and was stable through the end of 9th grade. 

Regarding grades, the STJ youth average about a C, according to school records, while control youth average about a D+, somewhat below passing. The disparity is increasing over time, suggesting that, with time, control youth are simply more likely to fail. The data suggest that this process may have begun already: by the spring of 8th grade, more control group youth were recommended to repeat 8th grade (12.2 vs. 7.l %) and referred to remedial summer school (51.2% vs. 44.0%). Moreover, control group youths passed
fewer of their 8th grade standardized subject tests (79% vs. 84%), and by 9th grade, 8.1% of the control group, vs. 3.5% of the STJ group, were not in high school because they had been held back or dropped out altogether. All comparisons are statistically significant for youth who attended at least five STJ sessions. 

Regarding disruptive in -class behavior (teacher-rated mean of annoying peers or interfering with their work, being critical of students who do well, being reprimanded or sent to the office and verbally or physically abusing the teacher, l =never, 5=always), STJ youth engage in fewer disruptive behaviors and this effect increases over the 9th grade. Behavior of experimental group youth becomes significantly less negative over time; control group youth behavior does not. 

Initiative-taking was a teacher-rated mean of doing more than the assigned work, actively participating in classroom discussions and engaging the teacher in conversation about the subject matter outside of classroom ( l=never, 5=always). STJ youth maintained their level of initiative-taking while control group youth were significantly less likely to engage in these positive classroom behaviors as they transitioned to high school.

Regarding time spent doing homework each week, STJ youth spent half an hour more per week than controlgroup youth, and the effect increases over time. Two years after the intervention, STJ youth are spending 26% more time doing homework than their control-group peers. 

Practical implications 

Students can be helped to develop strategies to attain their goals and do better in school with our brief, inexpensive and universal intervention, STJ. STJ can fit into either in-school or after-school activities. 

Future directions

Currently, our research team is focused on the fo llowing main questions: To what extent are these findings stable in high school? Will subgroup analysis show that effects are equally strong for Hispanic, low-income white and African American youths? What is the mediational process by which self-concept influences behavior over time?

- Daphna Oyserman, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology and the School of Social Work, and an Associate Research Scientist at the Institute for Social Research's Center for Group Dynamics.

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