Sometimes, the highest-ranked school may not be the right school for every child. This issue is also discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.
Q Is the highest-ranked school the right school for my child?
A As a Singaporean economist working on issues in education, I am often asked by parents to recommend the best school for their children. Invariably, what such parents were really asking me was to identify a highly ranked school that their child had a decent chance of getting into.
But this raises a dilemma – is a highly ranked school really the most suitable school for a child?
Adults may recall school environments as idyllic places, but we forget that classrooms have now become arenas where fierce competition takes place among classmates.
In today’s schools, students take part in academic tournaments where better test results, compared to those of their peers, bring greater opportunities for scholarships and allow access to better schools. Those who do not excel in these tournaments may lose their incentive to compete and ultimately drop out of the academic race altogether.
This is where my work provides some guidelines for parents weighing the pros and cons of being in a more competitive school.
Last year, a fellow researcher, Mr Yoshio Kamijo, and I conducted a two-day experiment where we first tested the maths ability of 132 Secondary 2 students in a school in Shandong, China, through maths pre-tests on the first day.
Afterwards, we categorised the performance of our students into four groups, based on those pre-tests: low maths ability, average maths ability, high maths ability and a mixed group with low-, average- and high-ability students in one class.
We were interested in comparing the performance of students in a mixed class with those in a class with similar-ability students.
Our experiment aimed to see how students in each class performed in another maths test given on the second day, under a competitive environment where winners received rewards and losers were given punishments.
The point of the exercise was to investigate whether being grouped with similar- or dissimilar-ability students mattered to students of different abilities.
Just like a scientific experiment, by controlling for their pre-ability, their performance in our competition captured how such students responded to the knowledge of competing against similar or weaker/stronger opponents.
Our final results were not that surprising. We compared the results of students in the mixed class with similar-ability peers.
We found that those in the mixed class had different reactions towards their competitors depending on their ability level: the low-ability students were discouraged and performed poorly, the middle-ability students were more motivated and did better in a mixed class than in a class with similar-ability students, while for the high-ability students, no real difference was seen.
The difference in performance was significant.