May 29, 2009
column appears on Wiretap every last Friday of the month and covers education, race and current events.)
While browsing Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog at The Atlantic Magazine, I stumbled onto his satirical link “Researchers Shocked That Obama’s Mere Presence Doesn’t Make Negroes Smarter.” After assuming I would be led to an Onion article, I arrived at a Newsweek article by Sharon Begley.
In this article, Begley refers to a January New York Times piece, “Study Sees an Obama Effect as Lifting Black Test-Takers.” The article discusses how researchers Dr. Ray Friedman, David M. Marx and Sei Jin Ko documented what they call an “Obama effect,” whereby the achievement gap between Blacks and Whites on a 20-question GRE test administered before Obama’s nomination almost disappeared when the exam was administered after his acceptance speech and again after the presidential election.
Friedman, a management professor at Vanderbilt University, Marx, a professor of social psychology at San Diego State University, and Jin Ko, a visiting professor in management and organizations at Northwestern, submitted their study for review to the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Proponents of the Obama Effect argue that Obama’s existence as a Black role model would help Blacks overcome anxieties about racial stereotypes linked to academics and standardized testing.
First, it is unclear from the Times piece whether there was any reference at all to Obama before the participants took the test. If not, then the story must be that if there was a difference in performance over time it was because Obama was “in the air”…
But the more worrisome concern is the quality of the data. Based on the Times article, it seems like there were four tests, and at each occasion there were maybe 20 black participants. Furthermore, the age range of the participants was around 50 years. The degree of sampling variability from occasion to occasion would be huge. Would you trust the results of an opinion poll that gathered a group of 20 participants? It’s all the more problematic that the researchers are trying to prove a lack of difference.
Despite logical doubt in the efficacy of the Obama Effect, why do researchers so ardently need to prove that Obama’s mere existence can cause a seismic shift in closing the achievement gap?