Do High-Performing Kids Suffer When They’re in Low-Performing Schools?

When my wife and I applied to public school kindergarten in San Francisco for our oldest child, we were not admitted to any of the five schools we selected. [1]In San Francisco, families are not guaranteed a spot in their neighborhood elementary school. Nearly everyone puts in an application indicating their choices and the school district assigns students to schools using a complicated algorithm. Instead, we were assigned to Sanchez Elementary School, a low-performing school with a GreatSchools rating of 1, the lowest possible.

“Don’t send your child here.”

I was disappointed but also open-minded. During a tour of of the school, I broke away from the group for a moment to chat with a kindergarten teacher. I explained that I was the father of a preschooler who would be coming to kindergarten with many advantages: She attended a good preschool and was read to every evening. She was coming into kindergarten fully ready and our family had high academic expectations.

“Should I send my daughter to your school?” I asked him.

“Honestly, I think probably not,” he replied. “I don’t have time for your daughter.”

He went on to explain that the children in his class were largely poor with serious needs. Many of his children went through periods where they did not know where their next meal was coming from or where they would sleep that night. He spent a lot of time helping children through periods of crisis and making sure they felt comfortable and safe in school.

With this advice, we did not choose Sanchez for our daughter. We ended up choosing a private school.

What does the research say?

It turns out that the kindergarten teacher who advised me was probably right. Several decades of research studies have examined the impact when higher-performing students attend class with much lower-performing students. The bottom line is that the test scores of higher-performing children do indeed suffer in this kind of scenario.[2]For an excellent, parent-friendly summary of the research on this topic, I recommend Michael J. Petrilli’s book, The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools. Many of the most important studies are cited in chapter 2, pp. 36–42. One particularly valuable Rand Corporation study by Dominic J. Brewer, Daniel I. Rees, and Laura M. Argys is described in a 1995 article, “Detracking America’s Schools: The Reform Without Cost?” in Phi Delta Kappan magazine.

Interestingly, however, the same impact is not observed when the ability difference between children is modest. The test scores of higher-performing students grow with nearly the same trajectory regardless of whether they’re in class with other higher-performing students or with students whose performance is middling.

What if you value schools with diversity?

I’ve known many middle-class families with high academic expectations who chose to send their children to diverse schools with low or middling test scores. They wanted to invest in their neighborhood school and they wanted their children to go to school in a diverse environment.

In general, their children have thrived academically and gone on to great colleges. It seems to me that their children often benefited from their experience of diversity, especially when their parents got involved with the school. There may be a range of compelling reasons for your family to put your child in a school that is lower-performing.

Five considerations to guide your decision

So, should you do it? If you want your child to go to a diverse school — and the diverse schools near you are low-performing — should you send you child there? This is ultimately a personal decision and there is no one right answer. However, let me share five of my own considerations, which may be helpful to you if you’re grappling with this question.

The older the child, the more reluctant I would be to put them in a lower-performing school. As children grow, they become less influenced by their parents and more influenced by their peers. For this reason, the older the child, the more you’ll want to think about whether it makes sense to put them in an environment where lower achievement is the norm.

The more a low-performing school practices performance grouping, the more comfortable I would be putting a higher-achieving child in it. Performance grouping is the sometimes controversial practice of putting students of similar abilities together in one class. Some schools have abandoned it because they want lower-achieving students to have the benefit of more interaction with higher-achieving students. [3]Indeed, as described in Petrilli’s book, most studies show that performance grouping isn’t that helpful to anyone if the range of student ability within a school is not too broad. However, the wider the range of student ability, the more important it could be for you to see that the school is willing to group students by performance when circumstances call for it. (Of course, the school must have a critical mass of higher-achieving students to make this possible.)

The more intrinsically motivated the child, the more comfortable I would be putting them a lower-performing school. Some children are primarily intrinsically motivated to learn — they love learning and they’re determined to learn a lot, regardless of the environment they’re in. Other children are primarily extrinsically motivated. They want to please teachers and parents and impress others around them. The more extrinsically motivated the child, the more you probably want them in an environment that will demand that they perform at a high level.

No matter what, always stay away from chaos. Some low-performing environments are too chaotic. People make various rationalizations for the chaos, but it’s really bad for learning. Make any number of other trade-offs before putting your a child in a noisy and chaotic environment.[4]Petrilli discusses the harm done by chaos to all children on page 36 of his book The Diverse Schools Dilemma.

The better the principal, the more comfortable I would be choosing a lower-performing school. If a child is a higher-performing student in a classroom with lower-performing peers, the teacher needs to know how to differentiate instruction for students at various levels. This is challenging for teachers to do. It’s more likely to happen if the principal is a strong instructional leader with high expectations for teachers and students.

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Do High-Performing Kids Suffer When They’re in Low-Performing Schools?

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. In San Francisco, families are not guaranteed a spot in their neighborhood elementary school. Nearly everyone puts in an application indicating their choices and the school district assigns students to schools using a complicated algorithm.
2. For an excellent, parent-friendly summary of the research on this topic, I recommend Michael J. Petrilli’s book, The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools. Many of the most important studies are cited in chapter 2, pp. 36–42. One particularly valuable Rand Corporation study by Dominic J. Brewer, Daniel I. Rees, and Laura M. Argys is described in a 1995 article, “Detracking America’s Schools: The Reform Without Cost?” in Phi Delta Kappan magazine.
3. Indeed, as described in Petrilli’s book, most studies show that performance grouping isn’t that helpful to anyone if the range of student ability within a school is not too broad.
4. Petrilli discusses the harm done by chaos to all children on page 36 of his book The Diverse Schools Dilemma.
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