Professional Development

Critical Thinking Skills and Academic Achievement

Willis Hawley's review of research on the effects of racial and ethnic school diversity on critical thinking skills and academic achievement.


Critical Thinking Skills

Educational psychology theories indicate that learning in diverse classrooms, where students from different backgrounds communicate their different experiences and perspectives, encourages students to think in more complex ways. Because students of different races and ethnic backgrounds often bring different cultural knowledge and social perspectives into schools, classrooms with racially diverse groups of students are more likely to enhance critical thinking by exposing students to new information and understandings. Much has already been learned from research in higher education about the benefits of a diverse learning community. For example, there is evidence from a multi-institution study that students experiencing classroom diversity – specifically racial and ethnic diversity – “showed the greatest engagement in active thinking processes, growth in intellectual engagement and motivation, and growth in intellectual and academic skills.”


Academic Achievement

A substantial body of research has been conducted on the impact of desegregated schooling on students’ academic achievement.38 Reviews of early desegregation research lead to the conclusion that school desegregation has a modest positive impact39 on the achievement of African-American students. Specifically, desegregation appears to have a positive impact on reading achievement, but there appears to be little or no effect on math scores. The impact of desegregation on achievement varies by context, appearing somewhat stronger for younger students. It also appears that there are stronger achievement gains when desegregation is voluntary.

While studies on academic achievement measure student outcomes (defined mainly by test scores), the underlying reasons for these gains in achievement are not entirely clear. Research has shown that children’s motivation to succeed academically is significantly related to their social relationships with others, social skills, and social competence. It also appears, however, that the improved achievement of students in integrated schools is, in part, related to the fact that schools with greater proportions of non-minority students generally have better resources to help improve learning opportunities, as discussed in Part II.

The findings of more recent studies of desegregated schools are consistent with earlier findings. One study using National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data across every state found that when controlling for socioeconomic status, most of the negative relationship with segregated schools and achievement is eliminated for whites but not for black students, although the relationship varied among states.

A recent study in Texas analyzed the impact of racial composition of classmates on the test scores of students, from 4th to 7th grade. A longitudinal dataset following multiple cohorts of 200,000 students across all Texas public schools enabled the researchers to track achievement score gains on an annual basis, and in this respect the study is methodologically superior to studies that analyze a crosssection of data at one point in time. The study’s findings suggest that a decrease in the black percentage of classmates for black students, particularly when cumulated over many years, could have a substantial impact on increasing their achievement. This relationship held even when other variables such as school quality and peers’ achievement were taken into account. The study found that desegregation had a negligible impact on white achievement scores. Thus, decreasing black segregation may improve black achievement scores without adversely affecting white achievement scores.

While the findings on the achievement of Latino students, who are the most segregated students of color in the United States, are more limited, a review of literature on the effect of school desegregation found that the few early studies reported modestly positive or no effect on Latino achievement. A recent study examined the impact that ending court-ordered school desegregation in Keyes – where the Supreme Court established desegregation rights for Latinos – had for students. The study found modest negative impacts on average math achievement levels for Latinos in racially isolated schools in Denver relative to Latinos in schools that are more racially integrated. A study of 50 Mexican-origin students who displayed all the characteristics that normally predict school failure (e.g., low-income, parents without high school diplomas, and Spanish-speaking households) but who excelled academically in elite colleges and universities found that the overwhelming majority (70%) of these students had attended desegregated schools, even though most of them lived in segregated neighborhoods. Among the critical aspects of this desegregated schooling experience was the confidence it gave them to compete academically.

In addition, educational research has documented how widespread but unfounded beliefs about racial inferiority hinder the academic performance of minority students. This phenomenon is known as “stereotype threat” and it undermines performance in this manner: Students perceiving stereotypic expectations about their own intellect from teachers and fellow students and who are motivated to disprove these stereotypes can become distracted in stressful assessment situations, such as testing, and fail to perform to their capacity. Much of the empirical research documenting the effects of stereotype threat has been done among college students, but research also indicates that stereotype threat can affect elementary school age children. For example, African-American, Latino, Asian, and Native American students (ages 6-10) who were aware of their racial group stereotypes performed significantly worse than white and minority students who were unaware of their group stereotypes. In addition to negatively affecting short-term academic achievement scores, research suggests that students who feel threatened by stereotypes may adopt habits that will undermine future academic success.

Numerous studies – recent as well as those that were conducted in the immediate aftermath of court-ordered desegregation – suggest that school desegregation has little or no measurable negative impact on the test scores of white students. Thus, fears that desegregation will undermine their achievement seem unfounded. Further, research showed that there were no gains for white students following the end of the desegregation plan as schools resegregated in Denver.

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