When First Lady Michelle Obama visited Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School, a London school for 11 to 16-year-old girls, while accompanying President Obama to a G20 summit in 2009, she gave a moving inspirational speech that may have helped the students increase their test scores.
“I want you to know that we have very much in common,” she said, coming close to tears at times. “There was nothing in my story that would land me here. I wasn’t raised with wealth or resources of any social standing to speak of.”
Obama continued her speech using her own story as an example of a success through adversity. “I am an example of what’s possible when girls, from the very beginning of their lives, are loved and nurtured by the people around them. It doesn’t matter if you come from a council estate or a country estate, we need strong, smart, confident young women to stand up and take the reins. We know you can do it. We love you.”
Obama has fostered the relationship to the school ever since, with staff telling the school that the girls had a “profound effect on her.” Perhaps that is why she returned to the school in 2012, traveling to Oxford and meeting 37 pupils from the all-girls school.
“From the minute I walked through the door,” she told them, of the 2009 visit, “I knew that I had come to a very special place. I was blown away by your talent and felt this strong sense of connection. In your stories, I saw so much of my story.”
The girls don’t come from wealthy backgrounds, despite the school being a private one.
“The impact took us all by surprise,” Headteacher Jo Dibb told the Telegraph. “The girls really took on board the message about working hard and then going on to help others and contribute to your community. It’s very hard time to be a young woman – there are so many pressures. It’s even harder if you come from a background where you don’t have role models. You face quite an uncertain future. What Michelle Obama did was feed the girls’ self-belief, and that’s the most wonderful thing you can give to a young woman.”
The digital education company TES reported Tuesday that the commitment and inspiration from the First Lady had a measurable impact. Professor Simon Burgess, from Bristol University, studied the exam results since her association with the school began and found a “very striking” rise in the number of top grades relative to the rest of those London students in 2012.
General Certificate of Secondary Education scores are taken when students are 16 years-old in the UK. He found a slight surge in scores from 2009 to 2010, and the 2012 score showed a substantial increase over the 2011 scores.
“Those results focus on the overall effect, but since Michelle Obama was encouraging very high performance and aspirations it is important to look specifically at high performance too,” Burgess said.
“In general terms: ‘I did this; you could too’, can be a very powerful message if delivered by the ‘right’ person. Michelle Obama was that person,” Burgess explained. “And her words had an effect – you only need to watch the news videos to see that the pupils were genuinely inspired.”
Burgess said that these results can show a path to helping youth achieve. “This supports the idea that inspiration and aspiration and effort are important, potentially very important. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was by no means a low performing school, and yet this injection of inspiration made a big difference.”
He also encouraged other schools to work to better grasp what motivates students. “We need to get inspirational role models into schools to talk about the importance of education,” he said. “The hard bit is finding speakers with that close connection to the specific pupils, to make it believable to say ‘I was like you; you can be like me.'”
First Lady Obama wrapped up her six-day “Let Girls Learn” tour of Liberia, Morocco and Spain this past weekend. With her mother and two daughters at her side, Obama worked to empower girls that they too can run the world.