‘Obama Effect’ raises blacks’ test scores

When Barack Obama peaked during the campaign, blacks scored about as well as similarly educated whites on a series of tests, reports a Vanderbilt management professor, Ray Friedman. He calls it the “Obama Effect.”

In the study, tests were administered to a total of 472 participants using questions drawn from Graduate Record Exams (GREs) to assess reading comprehension, analogies and sentence completion. The tests took place at four distinct points over three months during the campaign: two when Obama’s success was less prominent (prior to his acceptance of the nomination and the mid-point between the convention and election day) and two when it garnered the most attention (immediately after his nomination speech and his win of the presidency in November).

. . . during the height of the Obama media frenzy, the performance gap between black and white Americans was effectively eliminated.

Blacks “who did not watch Obama’s nomination acceptance speech continued to lag behind their white peers, while those who did view the speech successfully closed the gap.”

It’s the “educational equivalent of cold fusion” says Ken DeRosa, critiquing the New York Times story.

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  1. Miller Smith says:


  2. Cardinal Fang says:

    It sounds like magic but there’s research that backs this result up up. The effect has been observed before, and, in fact, is well documented. Steele and Aronson first studied it at Stanford. The Wikipedia article on stereotype threat gives a good overview.

  3. To follow up Cardinal Fang’s comment, Carol Dweck has published a book called Mindset that mentions similar studies. I believe she reports studies showing the impact of racial stereotypes on math achievement.

  4. That’s a misreading of what stereotype threat really is. The Wikipedia article even indicates as much with an approving quote from the researchers. the research shows you can depress scores by employing a ST and then get them back up to baseline by removing it. You can’t raise scores above the baseline, i.e., you can’t make people smarter than they really are. Think of it this way: you can convince someone to not try very hard if you tell them you don’t expect much from them.

    The Obama effect, in contrast, is more magical than mere stereotype threat.

  5. You can’t raise scores above the baseline, i.e., you can’t make people smarter than they really are.

    …So maybe they weren’t as dumb as everyone thought.

  6. “You can’t raise scores above the baseline, i.e., you can’t make people smarter than they really are.”

    Ah, yes…. but many people can actually TRY harder. Over and over again I’ve seen students do poorly on tests when I knew darned well they knew the material because they didn’t care to TRY. Examples run from the kid who just fills in whatever bubble to get done, to kids who pick the most obvious (and usually wrong) answer, and kids who just won’t recheck their work.

    And I know we’re not supposed to talk about it, but culturally, their are some groups who are programmed not to care/try as hard. (And it would be really nice not to have a whole bunch of people here trying to place blame for that, crying racism, etc, but I’m sure that will happen anyway.) I think Obama is providing inspiration for A LOT of people who could try harder, and I like that he is moving toward placing more responsibility for success in education on the shoulders of parents and students. Because trust me, it is hard to teach anyone, regardless of demographic, if they don’t care to try.

  7. I was among those whoi saw the story.Certainly,I hope this is true.But,alas,it’s about 20 questions on a GRE verbal.The NYT has its computers set to not print “Q” immediately after”I” in a story.The repercussions are too great.I’ve not noticed the SAT math section for females bounding upwards since he/she was used for indeterminate gender.I suspect these teachers will be unable to elaborate further

  8. John Drake says:

    So we need to keep voting blacks into the presidency in order to make black students perform well?

    This nation has gone insane.

  9. Robert Wright says:

    As a teacher, I’m right in the laboratory watching up close how this all is unfolding.

    Naturally, that might cause a more distorted view, but let me share nevertheless.

    Has the election of Barack Obama made an impact for my black students?

    It appears so.

    Has it been positive?

    It appears so.

    Has it been to a significant degree?

    It’s too early for me to tell.

    But one thing I did observe (or perhaps imagine), was that my black students seemed excited but anxious, even agitated, after Obama won. After the inauguration, the anxiety faded away.

    Most of my students, of all colors, seem to be most impressed by the fact that Barack Obama is young and MTV compatible.

    Times have changed and a lot of what shaped my thinking happened a long time ago.

    Selma may as well be Carthage.

  10. Robert Wright says:

    If this had been Roland Burris who was elected president, it would certainly have some impact due to his race, but it would be just a fraction of the impact that Barack Obama has had.

  11. Cardinal Fang says:

    John Drake, we can’t go back. We will now always be a country that has elected a black man to the Presidency. That’s not going to fade from memory soon.

  12. Cardinal Fang says:

    And I’ll add that among the Obama supporters I know, who are many, none supported Obama so that black students would do better in school. If this “Obama effect” pans out, it will be a wonderful result, but that’s not the reason I voted for Obama and I doubt it’s the reason for any significant number of Obama partisans.

  13. This study and some of the responses here are why professionals outside of the field of education laugh at us. The field still believes in magic and values nonsensensical things. Sad.

  14. As I’ve said for many years, it’s not race that’s holding kids back; it’s their culture. To the extent that Obama successfully shows kids that learning is cool, and not just something whitey made up to keep the slaves in their place, I’m all for it.

    I guess I can add this to the plusses of Obama’s election, with #1 being the reduction in BDS and having logical thought applied instead. I mean, look at the stuff Obama is saying and doing that is exactly the same as Bush did, but where Bush got crticized, the critics are praising Obama or at least being silent.

    Hooray! This country is bigger than any one party.

  15. I didn’t vote for Obama, but even if the only good thing he ever accomplishes is to kill the idea that any path to success other being a drug-dealing gangnbanging thug badmouthing your “hos” is “acting white,” then he has my thanks already.

  16. John Drake says:

    And what happens if the next president is white again?

    As far as electing a black president, it would have been nice if we’d elected one who’d actually accomplished something before running for the office, so it didn’t appear like he was voted in *because* he was black.

  17. Miller Smith says:

    I have run down some of the studies that were cited in Steele’s book about research on what he coined as “stereotype threat.” When a treatment is administered to black children and compared to a group of white children who receive no treatment (Control Group #1) and a group of white children who receive the same treatment (Control Group #2), one sees that the black children close the “gap” with Control Group #1 as one could expect. But Control Group #2 benefited even more from the treatment and increased their performance even more than the black treatment group.

    The black and white children were all matched on all other SES variables as well. All of the children had parents of similar educational attainment, incomes, and even matched by similar school quality. These studies were very well done. Problem is that those looking for institutional racism cherry pick the results that support that view. The only way the prescription will work is to give treatments to all black children and deny all white children any access to those academic enhancing treatments. (Who in their right mind would even think of doing such a thing to a generation of children?)

  18. GoogleMaster says:

    I’m surprised no one has said anything about “correlation vs causation”. Perhaps the children who are more inclined to watch political speeches are more studious than children who do not watch political speeches.
    One other thing that strikes me as funny. People keep describing Obama as “young”. He’s 47. Not too long ago, until this Generation Jones thing reared its head, his cohort were considered Boomers. He’s the same age as the *parents* of the young adults who are going gaga for him. Inexperienced? Possibly. Young? Not really.

  19. Miller, you have some links? Would like to read the original studies.

  20. >He’s 47. Not too long ago, until this Generation Jones thing reared its head, his cohort were considered Boomers. <

    No, this distinction has been present for a long time: Coupland’s “Generation X,” (which identified those born in the “late 50’s and early 60’s” as Gen X) was published back in ’91.

    Demographically, the actual baby boom does run from ’46 to ’64. But culturally there isn’t much in common between the Bill Clinton/GWB cohort, who came of age in the ’60’s against the backdrop of Vietnam…and those who were in diapers in the 60’s and came of age when Reagan was president.

  21. http://eduoptimists.blogspot.com/2009/01/tuskegee-and-obama-effect.html

    I’m the first to admit the potential for an Obama effect. Every time I hear him speak I think of the power of a role model, and dream of possible studies that could uncover such an effect. But in this case, I’m not so sure what’s being captured is an effect of Obama on the confidence of black students in their academic performance. Here’s why:

    (1) The students taking the test at each administration were different students. If the same kids took the test repeatedly, obviously we’d expect their scores to increase.

    (2) According to the lead researcher, in a personal communique with me, while the pool of potential participants was constructed at time 1, the actual sample at each time was based on volunteers offered a monetary incentive to participate (what size incentive? I don’t know).

    There are more critical pieces of information missing as well:

    (a) Whether the reasons for participation vs. non-participation differed by race, and are correlated with test-taking ability.


    (b) Whether the rates of participation were similar for both racial groups.

    What we do know is that ever since the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis (TSUS), African Americans are less likely than Whites to volunteer for participation in research. Given the known gaps in achievement, if they knew anything about what the study required they may’ve also simply lacked the confidence to participate. This is completely understandable. The question is, could it influence the findings in this study? Are there other plausible explanations for the change in test scores observed in the study?

    Yes. Let me suggest just a few.

    (1) A disproportionate effect of the economy on black’s financial status. The study took place during a year of steady decline in the economic standing of many Americans. Is it possible that the money offered for participation wasn’t enough to offset the concerns of higher-achieving black students about research (or to offset the opportunity costs associated with participation)? But that by time 2, the money was simply worth more (e.g. more effective as an incentive) and induced greater participation of black students? I’m positing that during the period whites were both less affected by changes in the economy and overall less averse to volunteering to take a test.

    (2) An effect of Obama on black’s trust in society, including researchers. So at time 1 the black students in the pool are generally more suspicious and only the lower-achievers are affected by the monetary incentive enough to overcome that suspicion and take the test. At time 2, they’re feeling more goodwill towards the world, and higher-achieving black students are willing to participate.

    (3) Maybe higher-achieving black students, when asked twice to do a study, tend to do it? I don’t know if nonrespondents at time 1 were asked again.

    These are just three ideas about how sample selection could bias these results. I have many more. What about the gender composition of the samples? ( Black men have lower test scores on average and are generally less likely to participate in studies. )

    I want to quantify the good feelings we’re all having in the post-Bushie world too. I get the motivation. But I don’t think we should get too carried with feel-good stories on studies that have not yet undergone peer review.

  22. I am married to a black man and have been close to a lot of black folks for many years, so I have my own observations about this. I don’t think most white people really understand how powerfully internalized negative stereotypes are for a lot of black people. I always kind of figured that people would be offended or maybe discouraged by stereotypes, but otherwise unaffected. Unfortunately, a good many people absorb these stereotypes as a statement on themselves and those around them. (When my oldest son was very small and very difficult, I was continually shocked at all the black women who would see him being unruly and tell me, “you’re going to have to hard with him. He’s not some white kid you can be nice to. He’s black and black kids are bad.” I kid you not. I heard this at different times from at least a dozen different black women.)

    Even if someone doesn’t really believe the stereotypes to be true about themselves, they know that they will be judged according to those stereotypes regardless of what they actually do. I think this is why Obama (and especially American’s approval of and embrace of him) may have a more powerful effect on many black folks than expected. His example provides a positive example to internalize and America’s embrace of him raises hope that efforts will be rewarded rather than ignored or negated by prejudice.

  23. Ray Friedman says:

    Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. One point can be clarified very quickly. One post says:

    “That’s a misreading of what stereotype threat really is. The Wikipedia article even indicates as much with an approving quote from the researchers. the research shows you can depress scores by employing a ST and then get them back up to baseline by removing it. You can’t raise scores above the baseline, i.e., you can’t make people smarter than they really are.”

    In our study, the base-line condition is a stereotype threat condition. That is, subjects are asked to indicate their race (like in the classic stereotype threat studies). This was done on all rounds of the study. Thus, time one (pre-nomination) shows a black-white difference in scores that are induced by stereotype threat. Later rounds test whether this difference is reproduced, or diminished, based on how prominent Obama was at that moment.

    The other challenge to our study is timing. In our study there is a black-white gap in time 1, then no gap in time 2 (for those who watched the convention speech), then a gap again in time 3, then no gap in time 4 (just after the election). It is very hard to explain these ups and downs based on (linear) trends in the economy. Moreover, the major economic collapse happened before time 3, so if that were to explain a change in results, we would not see different results in time 3 and time 4.

    It is nice to see a blog where people are thinking it through carefully. Some of the other blogs are filled with racist rants!

  24. On the other side of the coin, when Obama peaked, my white kids’ scores inexplicably plunged. But when I told them that Obama’s mother was white, their scores surged.

  25. Cardinal Fang says:

    Wow, thanks for visiting, Professor Friedman. So, to recap:

    In all four testing situations, the students were reminded of their race before being given the test. In previous research, this has been shown to induce “stereotype threat,” where black students underperform compared to academically comparable white students. In two of the tests, the black students did, as predicted, have lower scores than their academic abilities would predict. But just after the Democratic Convention that nominated Obama, and again just after the election, the black students reminded of their race didn’t get lower scores than academically comparable white students.

  26. I don’t remember my test scores improving whenever a Caucasion President was elected in the past.
    Maybe I’m just a slow learner.

  27. Margo/Mom says:

    Rex–you should look into some of Ronald Ferguson’s research. He doesn’t find that the issue of “lack of cool” either exists to any great degree, or has the assumed impact. There are other factors with regard to student-teacher communication, the results of time put into study out of class, perhaps teacher expectations and how they align with student/parent expectations (I may be misremembering this last one).

  28. Ray Friedman says:


    The issue of academic comparability…In past studies, they were able to control for student SAT. We did not have that data, but did have education level, and controlled for that (the means we report are adjusted means, controling for education). That said, this population is probably more balanced on education than the world in general (all participants were saavy enough to be part of an on-line subject pool). That is similar to prior studies, where students were from the same school (e.g., Stanford). These studies (to my knowledge) have not been done with kids who were really not involved in school. Indeed, the effect assumes that the subjects care enough about their performance on the test to be anxious about the results. So, there is comparability, but when we (and prior studies) show equal scores, that does not imply that we would expect equal scores in the general population. We believe the “Obama effect” helps blacks who are engaged and relatively well educated to overcome stereotype threat, but do not expect that the “Obama effect” will eliminate the national black-white difference in test scores. (Some people believe that is what we were claiming, which is understandable if they see a 2-minute CNN report.)

    This summary is correct, except that our sample was adults, not students:
    “In two of the tests, the black students did, as predicted, have lower scores than their academic abilities would predict. But just after the Democratic Convention that nominated Obama, and again just after the election, the black students reminded of their race didn’t get lower scores than academically comparable white students.”

  29. badabing and tallbill,
    care to share which longstanding negative stereotypes the election of a white president helps to combat? Why not stop being smart-alecky jerks and try for a nanosecond to put yourself in someone else’s shoes? A little more compassion goes a lot further than more reductionist nonsense. IJS.

  30. The elections of Jimmy Carter and William Jefferson Clinton clashed with the stereotype images of white Southern racists, whites as crackers and hillbillies and that of white trailer trash. You don’t think minorities harbor negative stereotypes of whites? Think again.

  31. While I have observed some increased engagement among some black students, I’m wondering how it will affect the engagement of their teachers; in other words, change the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

  32. The stereotype threat experiments are all done in very artificial environment and then try to project to the real world. There is no real world data to support it.

    The ‘Obama effect’ provides a great chance to prove or disproove the stereotype threat theory. The last four SAT test dates were 10/4/08, 11/1/08, 12/6/08, 1/24/09. The last one is 4 days after the inauguration, peak of Obama mania. In future months we are going to get the statistics of the SAT data. This is real world data, not some artificial small data set.

    Does anyone really thinks that the achievement gap would disappear or at least reduced in the Jan result?

  33. Isn’t it a stretch to conclude that there is an actual effect on test-takers over such a short period of time, in such a basic assessment, with such a small sample size? Since they were all adults, I don’t see how this could be perceived to have an effect on school-children. I recently posted on the effect of the Obama Effect and it may cause more harm than good at http://edublog.teacherjay.net/2009/01/30/the-obama-effect/


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