Over the past five years, more than $200 million has gone toward launching the new Common Core standards, with the goal of closing achievement gaps in public schools. But for all their meticulous detail about math and language curricula, the standards fail to address one important factor: the psychological barriers that stand between many students and deeper learning. Unless students are motivated to take on the new standards, and persuaded that they’re up to the challenge, the Common Core could have the unintended effect of leaving many students even further behind.
Researchers like Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck—best known for her 2006 book Mindset—have been gathering insights into student motivation for three decades. New work by her colleagues makes a strong case for focusing on students’ perceptions of themselves. In a variety of studies, these researchers have found that students who doubt their academic abilities, or question whether students with their particular backgrounds belong at their schools, frequently fall behind or fail at school—regardless of their innate intelligence or the quality of the teaching they receive.
The good news is that students can be buttressed psychologically to tackle academic challenges. In one instance, David Yeager of the University of Texas at Austin, who studied with Dweck, and Stanford psychology professor Geoffrey Cohen report that students of color more frequently take steps to improve their performance when they trust their teachers' commitment to helping them. For a study that was recently published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Yeager and Cohen had 7th-graders at a middle-class, racially diverse New England public middle school each write an essay on a personal hero. The teachers graded the essays the way they typically would, adding routine critical comments like "unclear," "give examples," and "wrong word."