Fulfilling the American Promise: Rethinking Achievement

Essential Questions
  • What is stereotype threat?
  • How does stereotype threat affect and shape the learning experience?
  • In what ways can African-American achievement look different from majority culture achievement?
  • Examine how phenomena like "stereotype threat" and "the achievement gap" have roots in complex institutional and historical inequities. 
  • Recognize the important considerations and additional variables involved in academic achievement from an African-American perspective.

You need:

  • ability to access audio and video on your device;
  • pen and paper or a computer;
  • and about one hour.


Let’s explore Claude Steele’s ideas about stereotype threat.

Carefully read the essay “How Stereotypes Undermine Test Scores.

Next, watch minutes 7:47 to 19:45 of this video where Claude Steele describes stereotype threat.

Finally, read this overview to deepen your understanding of the  theory.  


Just as specific behaviors are attributed to the stereotype of the "absentminded professor," a long list of behaviors – real or perceived – can inform or interrupt our expectations of academic excellence for students of color.

Take a few minutes for this task:

Step 1 – List behaviors and beliefs that accompany the Asian-Pacific Islander stereotype of academic superiority.

Step 2 – List behaviors and beliefs that often accompany the stereotype of African-American academic inferiority.

Step 3 – List comments you have heard that uphold the stereotype that girls and women are not as good as men and boys at math and science.

Step 4 – List academic and non-academic spaces and experiences that reinforce some, or all, of these stereotypes.

In a group: work in pairs!


Go Deeper

According to Claude Steele, “...stereotype threat is the pervasive fear of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype or the fear of inadvertently doing something that would confirm that stereotype.”

Research shows that stereotype threat noticeably impacts all levels of African-American achievement including, but not limited to, classroom performance, standardized test scores, social interaction and school completion.

In what ways do both families in American Promise recognize that Seun’s and Idris ’ academic achievement may be influenced by stereotype threat?

African-American youth sometimes find their behaviors are labeled as "acting white." How might a label like "acting white" uphold race-based stereotypes of both inferiority and superiority?


Despite the reality that a host of issues  create  academic disparities, a belief persists that African-American children are intellectually inferior and embody deficits that need constant remedying, fixing, repair, and intervention. 

Reflect on the ways both Dalton and Banneker specifically address the myth of African-American inferiority and the idea that black children suffer from deficits.

 In a group? Work in pairs to document and compare ideas.



Seun and Idris face an extended narrative about achievement, one that references their relatives and even President Barack Obama. Scholars suggest that academic achievement is more than mastering content and should also include:

  • establishing, maintaining and articulating a healthy and positive self-identity;
  • exercising meaningful patterns of self-actualization;
  • possessing a clear understanding that achievement is often a symbolic, historical, family-based accomplishment;
  • acknowledging a child’s resilience and stamina within a system initially created to support the dominant culture.        

Go Deeper

Rewatch the clips where Seun is tested for his martial arts certification, Joe talks with Idris about the family’s history of success, struggle and access, and Banneker’s principal talks about the ethos of the school.

How do both boys attempt to embody this understanding of success?

Can you think of other moments in the film that illustrate this wider understanding of achievement?


Do this now.

Write about how Banneker and Dalton align with, and consequentially support, a holistic understanding of success.

Seun and Idris’ learning differences create internalized narratives about their ability to achieve and succeed in academic spaces. What is each boy’s narrative about his own ability to achieve and succeed? Consider selecting specific examples from the middle and high school years to support your response.

In a group?  Discuss the questions with a partner.



Consider this longer-term task.

Conduct a small group interview with students to explore their beliefs about their ability to succeed.

Sample questions:  What do you believe about your ability to achieve success? What are your plans?  What can you do if you feel your pathway is blocked by others who have more power than you do?

Explore the messages students hear about achievement.

Sample questions: What messages have you heard about success? What guarantees success? Where and how have those messages been reinforced?

Explore the guidance students have been given about pathways to achievement.

Sample questions: What specific instructions have you received about pathways to achievement?

When you’re done, compare your earlier list of stereotypes with the information gathered in the group interview.

Reflect on both sets of data and use the information to shape, reframe, or design professional development in your institution or agency. 

Learn and Reflect 

In recent years, much has been written about the school-to-prison pipeline, in which children are disproportionately pushed out of schools and into the criminal justice system.

For many families, schools like Dalton are a welcome alternative to the interconnected systems that make the pipeline possible. Interestingly, independent schools report similar "gaps" in achievement, similar amounts of discipline and academic probation, similar suspension disparities, and similar special education referral rates as public schools throughout the nation.

How, and to what extent, does this national pattern appear in American Promise?

How might these outcomes be connected to both “stereotype threat” and black student achievement?

The next series of questions and activities can be completed individually or with a group.  

As both boys work to achieve academic success, they also find degrees of success in athletic and extracurricular endeavors. Juxtapose their out-of-classroom experiences. To what extent does each boy’s experience support his holistic growth?


View this 6-minute interview of Claude Steele discussing stereotype threat.

What questions do you have related to the topics in the video?  List them.

Academic achievement is almost always measured by assessment. While some assessments are formal and standardized, others, often labeled broadly as "alternative assessments," are less so. While broadening the scope of assessment is relevant and necessary, the misuse and overuse of alternative assessments warrants consideration.

Too often, believing that black and brown children are "oral and literal" and have different learning styles, educators design assessments especially to support these children. These come in the form of creating rap songs, designing collages, or "acting it out." While such assignments may have some merit, their overuse can undermine learning and uphold the deficit model stereotype by normalizing low expectations.


What are some of the specific ways the overuse of alternative assessments can impact students, educators and learning institutions?

Compile a list of the learning and thinking assessments used in your classroom or institution.

Work either individually or with colleagues to create a system to evaluate classroom assessment methods to ensure they are balanced and do not inadvertently uphold, reflect or perpetuate stereotypes.

Academic achievement most often occurs when families support students; have safe, affirming living environments; practice positive, affirming behaviors; and can see that hard work is rewarded. With that in mind,

  1. How can schools provide the varying supports a student will need to succeed? 
  2. How can your school improve?

This is the third in a four-part series. Next in the series is "Fulfilling the American Promise: The Education System, Outside and Within."


Theresa Perry, Claude Steele, Asa Hilliard III. Young Gifted and Black: Promoting High Achievement Among African American Students. Boston: BeaconPress, 2003.

Jenny Anderson. “Admitted, but Left Out,” The New York Times, 19 Oct. 2012      

Marian Wright Edelman. “Losing the Children Early and Often.” The Crisis Nov-Dec. 2006.

Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. “Claude Steele on Stereotype Threat.”

Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 2011, Oct.

Additional sources

Lisa Delpit. Other People’s Children. New York: New Press, 2006.

Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 1970.

bell hooks. Teaching to Trangress. NewYork: Routledge, 1994.

Virginia Lea and July Helfand. Identifying Race and Transforming Whiteness in the Classroom. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2006.

Peggy Macintosh. “Interactive Phases of Curricular and Personal Re-Vision with Regard to Race,” Working Paper #219. Wellesley Center for Research on Women, 1990.

Mab Segrest. Born to Belonging. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003.


Stacey Gibson is a 15 year veteran teacher in the Chicagoland area.