Harvard Research Reveals 2 Ways to Close the Achievement Gap

Teachers everywhere have heard about the achievement gap.

It’s the gap in performance between African- American and Hispanic students and their white peers.

The gap shows up in grades, standardized-test scores, course selection, dropout rates, and college-completion rates.

And it gets worse…

Stanford University just released a report based on data from over 200 million standardized test scores. They found out that the racial gap in achievement exists in almost every single school district. 

This is a big problem. Unfortunately, policy makers think the only answer is more money and resources.

If they know anything about human nature they would realize that:

The issue is not more resources. The issue is trust.

Let me explain…

Image result for trust

Joe Gebbia may not be a household name yet, but he will be. He and his buddy Brian Chesky started a company you may have heard of called AirBnB. AirBnB allows people to rent out their house or portions of their house to strangers.

Now think about that for a moment.

Walk down the street and pick a random person. Now decide if you want to let that random person come and stay in your house or apartment…

Probably not. Yet, Joe figured out how to make this idea work. How?

He figured out how to build trust.

Considering that a lack of trust in the is one of the major causes for the achievement gap, we may want to listen to a guy who has designed a way for over 100 million people to trust each other enough to let them stay in their house. AirBnB collaborated with Stanford in a study that revealed what scientists have known for decades.

According to Joe,“The research showed, not surprisingly, we prefer people who are like us. The more different somebody is, the less we trust them.” Simply put, similarity builds Trust.

How to Build Trust

Studies show the quickest way to build rapport is to find common ground. Teachers should seek commonalities between your students and yourself. But can you create this dynamic?

Hunter Geblhach and colleagues at Harvard created an experiment where the students and teachers of a ninth grade class would take an interest survey.

Here’s an example question:

 The most important quality in a friend is:

a. Being there when you need him/her

b. Listens to you and understands you

c. Always has your back

 Gehlbach and team then selectively shared examples from the survey results with teachers and students to show them that they had similar responses.

Students and teachers were both shown evidence that they had at least 5 commonalities according to the survey.

And an amazing thing happened.

Students suddenly started to perform better in class. Furthermore, the students who benefited the most were the minority students. In fact, in this school, this brief intervention closed the achievement gap by 60%.

“When we look at academic achievement with respect to these black and Latino students, what we find is that when they’re in the treatment group, their grades go up by about .4 of a letter grade,” Gelbach explains.

While that may not sound like a lot, it “translates into over 60 percent plus reduction in the achievement gap at this school.”

Yes you did read that right.

Simply finding similarities with your students will help close the achievement gap.

Think about how you could do something similar in class to highlight similiarities. You could use surveymonkey.com or Google Forms to come up with a list of questions to generate commonalities. Then selectively share the results with the students of the answers you have in common.

(Here’s another proven way to build trust with your students)

I know what you’re thinking… what if they aren’t similar?

What if teachers and students have very very little in common? Don’t worry.

It gets better….

More Powerful than Similarities

The Stanford study also revealed there was something more powerful than similarities… Reviews. When guests and hosts finish the transaction, they write reviews of their counterpart.

“As it turns out, a well designed reputation is key for building trust,” Gebbia said. However, it had to be a certain amount of reviews. 1-3 reviews wouldn’t do the trick. Similarities still indicated more trust (it is a deep rooted bias after all.) But, if you got over 10 reviews… Trust skyrocketed. The more reviews a host received, the more likely they are to book their home.

There is a clear scientific reason that this works.

Scientists have known for years that social norms and the psychological principle known as social proof is very powerful. One well known study increased towel reuse at hotels, by simply putting a card next to the towels that read, “The majority of guests in this room chose to reuse their towels.”

This created the impression that it was normal for guests to do that. This simple tweak increased towel reusage by 26%!

How can you use this as a teacher?

Simply have students write down one thing that they enjoyed about your class. Then distribute these statements in a public way. You could put them on posters or you could distribute a flyer with all of the statements (that you curate for accuracy) to your students. Or you may want to get fancy and put them in quote bubbles around the room.

Think about how much more trust you will have in class if you combined these two strategies. And you’ll be doing good in the world by helping to close the achievement gap!


If you like to be trusted you might this free course because it’s about trust.

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  1. Trust is so key to what we do as educators. Unfortunately, we sometimes fall short in instilling that trust. That’s why it’s so important to prioritize student and parent engagement in your schools. Start an ongoing dialogue, ask for feedback, make sure your students’ voices are heard.


      1. I am a teacher of 27 years. I have a Masters and don’t recall ever being taught these “trust skills” in school. I learned them from my childhood “Camp and Youth Group” experiences, and I am so thankful for this. I volunteer for a sleep-away camp for kids who are economically disadvantaged, and come from all backgrounds, races, religions, etc… We use trust skills throughout this experience to help the campers bond with each other. Finding common ground is crucial in these types of situations because children want, and sometimes need, to know what to talk about with each other. This also builds understanding, appreciation, and ultimately empathy between friends. I believe these humanitarian skills need to be taught in all schools.


      2. Jennifer, it probably would have saved many teachers a ton of time “managing classrooms” if they were taught trust. Thank you for your generosity in volunteering and sharing your experience.


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