kitchen table math, the sequel: Why rich suburban school districts are the wrong choice for 90% of the kids attending them

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Why rich suburban school districts are the wrong choice for 90% of the kids attending them

ABSTRACT

Being schooled with other high-achieving peers has a detrimental influence on students' self-perceptions: School-average and class-average achievement have a negative effect on academic self-concept and career aspirations-the big-fish-little-pond effect. Individual achievement, on the other hand, predicts academic self-concept and career aspirations positively. Research from Western and developed countries implies that the negative contextual effect on career aspirations is mediated by academic self-concept. Using data from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2006 (a total of 398,750 15-year-old students from 57 countries), we test the generalizability of this mediation model in science using a general multilevel structural equation modeling framework. Individual achievement was positively related to academic self-concept (52 countries) and career aspirations (42 countries). The positive effect on career aspirations was mediated by self-concept in 54 countries. The negative effects of school-average achievement on self-concept (50 countries) and career aspirations (31 countries) also generalized well. After controlling for self-concept at both the individual and the school level, there were significant indirect contextual effects in 34 countries-evidence for mediation of the contextual effect of school-average achievement on career intentions by academic self-concept.
Big Fish in Little Ponds Aspire More: Mediation and Cross-Cultural Generalizability of School-Average Ability Effects on Self-Concept and Career Aspirations in Science
Nagengast, Benjamin 1 2; Marsh, Herbert W. 2 3 4 | Journal of Educational Psychology |
Publish Ahead of Print, 9 April 2012
Absolutely true.

Absolutely true.

I have seen the damage in my own child and in the children of other parents here and in neighboring towns where I tutor.

To this day, C. sees himself as stupid in math. Stupid. Not: OK in math, really good in verbal. Stupid. Can't do math.

When you're a little fish in a big pond AND YOU ARE A CHILD, WITH A CHILD'S BRAIN, AND A CHILD'S BLACK-WHITE WAY OF PUTTING TWO AND TWO TOGETHER, that's what you think.

Maybe I'll strike those all-caps later, when I read this again.

But maybe I won't.

AND SEE:
nominally high-performing schools
grade deflation and winner-take-all "star schools"

8 comments:

Crimson Wife said...

I somewhat agree and somewhat disagree. It is not a good situation either to be way smarter than the rest of one's classmates. I was much happier in college than I was in high school even though I was only average in my college classes. No more being bored out of my mind with material and a pace that were unchallenging (even though I was in all honors classes). Intellectualism was seen as a GOOD thing rather than the kiss of death socially.

I think the best situation is where the student is somewhat above average so that he/she doesn't feel "stupid" but not so much brighter that even honors/AP classes are too easy or experiencing negative social effects.

SteveH said...

"...we test the generalizability of this mediation model in science using a general multilevel structural equation modeling framework."

Wow! Using data from PISA! Apparently, data and "multilevel structural equation modeling frameworks", rather than common sense, is required for journal papers. I wonder what results they would get using the same model and SAT scores.

Success breeds success. Living in your own little world does not.

That doesn't mean I disagree with the general idea, but it's not that simple. I have a friend who sends her kids to the top prep schools possible. Two of them are at Phillips Andover. One of them will do very well; the other might be stressed out. Will it affect her career aspirations? It depends.

It's not just an academic issue. It's a personality issue. I wouldn't send my son there because of the competition and stress. He gets the same AP classes at his local public high school and most get good AP scores. The general solution is not to dumb down academics just so that you can be successful.

There is also the issue of support. Talking with a teacher at a very old local prep school, he told me that they really don't provide a better education for the top students. They just provide better college prep support that extends down to the lowest level students. This isn't the case in many sink or swim public high schools that try to put the screws to all of those coddled affluent kids. Prep schools might be more competitive, but most of the kids will think of themselves as above average. In a regular high school, the sink or swim policy might have a negative effect without having the bounce of being at an impressive school. There will also not be the same level of guidance support.

Back when I taught math and CS at a small private college, I remember thinking about how some of the students would do when they got out in the real world. I knew the difference between the difficulty of courses in different schools. There is no AP sort of consistency across colleges. You might have great career aspirations but can't get the job you want.

For K-8, I think a big problem is the transition from the spiral, no worries philosophy of K-6 to the take responsibility for your own learning, gotta prepare you for high school pressure of 7th and 8th grades. The transition is nonlinear.

I once taught a SSAT class for 7th and 8th graders and it struck me that many of them thought of themselves as stupid. It wasn't the ethos of the school as much as it was their inability to answer the questions. These were once happy and successful K-6 students.

SteveH said...

Having followed your comments about C. for so many years, my guess would be that things would be so different if he was taught math properly in K-6. When you did manage to get him caught up, it was a real effort. I'm sure kids see others who appear to be math brains and have no clue to what goes on in their homes. The schools are not going to point out that issue. They want to take credit for those students. That leaves the rest thinking that there must be something wrong with them. You have to separate the question of being a little fish in a big pond from the question of why he was a little fish in the first place.

Catherine Johnson said...

I was much happier in college than I was in high school even though I was only average in my college classes.

Do you think some of that had to do with being older & more mature? (I'm asking --- not suggesting.)

High school is SUCH an intense period .... this is really a subject I'd like to hear from everyone on.

Last week, talking to the mother of the student I was doing my 'precision teaching' practicum with, we got on the subject of small vs large schools. (She teaches in a large & very well-regarded school in Manhattan; her son attends a very small and well-regarded private school.)

She feels strongly (I don't think I'm misstating what she told me...) that small schools have major drawbacks. If a student isn't doing so well, he/she gets typecast in a more powerful way than he/she might in a larger arena.

I agree with this, based in our experience here in Irvington, which is TINY. Back when Chris was in ...maybe 6th grade....I talked to a school board member who told me that the district's size is a major problem for kids by the time they get to high school. I didn't really understand that until a bit later, but she was right.

Kids here know each other from preschool, and they do get typecast. That's NOT a criticism of the other kids or the parents or the teachers or the administrators or the school itself. It is a built-in, structural issue.

I believe it's the same principle as the small-town/big-city dynamic. The great thing about a small town is that it's intimate and everyone knows you. The bad thing about a small town is that it's intimate and everyone knows you.

=======

Back to big fish/little pond, I wonder whether the psychological effect is more intense for young adolescents.

Catherine Johnson said...

I think the best situation is where the student is somewhat above average so that he/she doesn't feel "stupid" but not so much brighter that even honors/AP classes are too easy or experiencing negative social effects.

That didn't work for us at all. Chris is far above average in reading, average or below average (for this district) in math, and it was a social/academic disaster.

You also have to add in the college admissions process, with colleges wanting the top 10% of a class -- no matter how smart the rest of the class.

You don't get 'credit' for being in the top 20% of a class even when that top 20% would put you in the top 5% elsewhere.

Catherine Johnson said...

Two of them are at Phillips Andover.

Right ---- BUT I wonder whether prep schools manage to handle this issue differently. Remember, Attewell says that the top prep schools often have arcane grading systems designed to make it impossible for selective colleges to pit students against each other. (That is, the grading system is so indecipherable, it's not possible for the college admissions officers to figure out who's in the top 10%.)

Of course, I don't know how the kids feel about themselves.

Chris's Jesuit high school, which is selective, seems to be an amazingly egalitarian place. They have some super, super-brainy kids ... and they also have SPED kids but without any SPED services. The school is the 'service.'

As far as I can tell, the school breeds a sense of equality amongst the students while at the same time having a traditional grading scale (which they mask for the purposes of college admissions, though I've forgotten the details now) and while admiring high academic achievement.

Soooo....there may be 'cultural' ways a school can mitigate the small fish/big pond issue.

btw, I've come to think that religious schools are FANTASTIC. Obviously, I've dealt with exactly one religious school in my life, but I can see how it works (I think), and I know that 'formula' would work with many, many kids.

In a religious school (meaning a school like the schools Jesuits run), the presence of God in school has a wonderful leveling effect amongst teachers, administrators, students, and parents. After all, in the eyes of God, a rich donor parent is no better than a poor non-donor parent.

On the night of Chris's graduation, I made my friend R., who had just lost her school board re-election bid here in Irvington, walk the school with me. She is not religious at all; I think it's right to say that she is an atheist.

She came to graduation with us, and she loved the graduation, she loved the parents and kids, and she loved the school. I walked her all around, pointing out all the Loyola pictures & the church pictures & the service pictures...and I said that you don't have to believe in God -- in fact, you can be an atheist -- to feel the presence of 'God' in the school.

Inside the school, you feel that there is a 'higher authority,' who looks upon the humans in the school as equals.

She absolutely agreed; she could feel it in every hall.

kcab said...

I don't know what the right mix is, but big fish in a little pond was not good for me, and set me up for a difficult time initially in college. I wish I magically knew the right type of district for my kids. They're in a rich suburban district now, after being in an economically diverse, lower performing district. I'm still cautiously optimistic that this will be a better place for them.

Lsquared said...

I was much happier in college than I was in high school even though I was only average in my college classes.

Do you think some of that had to do with being older & more mature? (I'm asking --- not suggesting.)


I had this same experience. I'm sure it wasn't because I was older and more mature (I was 16). I'm pretty sure it's because my classmates were more mature though!