Peer effect is overrated in student performance

The latest argument for admitting students who do not pass the entrance exam to selective high schools is the peer effect (“It’s the peer effect, stupid: What makes schools like Stuyvesant great. It’s not test-based admission, but broader culture of excellence,” New York Daily News, Feb. 20).  What advocates maintain is that being in a school where academic excellence permeates the atmosphere is enough to help all students succeed.

I don’t doubt for a second that the peer effect is a factor in how students learn, but I think it is highly overrated.  If students are admitted when they lack the skills and knowledge to handle rigorous work, they will struggle and eventually fail no matter who their classmates are.  It takes a certain IQ to deal with the kind of college-level work that elite high schools in any community offer.  Yes, being around other students who are far brighter can act as a motivation, but it is not enough to compete.

Hollywood would have everyone believe that grit is how poorly prepared students can succeed.  But the prose of textbooks used in New York’s specialized high schools requires what educators have said is an IQ of about 115.  That’s the top 16 percent of the distribution.  There will always be a few exceptions, but how can being around other smarter students help students who don’t possess the same intelligence?

There has been much coverage in the media about the mismatch when students choose a college or university.  I say the same thing applies when students are admitted to elite high schools.  We are setting them up for failure despite the best intentions.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

4 Replies to “Peer effect is overrated in student performance”

  1. Peer effect is important, but mostly in a negative way.

    If there are one or two low-achieving students in a class with 22 high-achieving students, peer pressure will encourage academic achievement and discourage disruptive minor misbehavior. The low-achieving students will probably try harder than they would have tried if the class was full of low-achieving students. Unclear how much those low-achieving students will learn or how they will respond emotionally — they might learn a lot or they might learn relatively little (because the work is just too far above their level) and become upset/depressed (because they realize they are academic failures relative to the other students in the class).

    On the other hand, if the percentage of low-achieving students in the class become substantial — say 5 or ten in the class of 25, the low-achieving students will probably have a large enough peer group to be insulated from the pro-academic-achievement peer pressure of the high-achieving students, to generate their own anti-academic-achievement peer pressure group, and to resort to minor misbehavior to relieve the frustration inherent in trying to do academic work that is far above their “grade level”. At this point, instruction will be disrupted, the class will start to become chaotic, and parents of the high-achieving students will start to pull their kids out of the school.

    Either we believe in tracking or we do not. If we believe in tracking — as I do — then integrating low-achieving students into high-achieving classes is, by definition, counterproductive.

    Unfortunately, public officials still view tracking as tainted by the racial discrimination that no doubt played a role in tracking decisions in some school systems back in the 1940s and 1950s. These public officials believe that, to avoid allegations of racism, they must oppose “tracking” even in the low-SES inner-city neighborhood schools where virtually all of the students are minority and racism could not possibly govern tracking assignments. So, the inner-city public officials instead use charters, magnets, and private-school vouchers to implement tracking without explicitly calling it tracking — that is, students are tracked based on whether their parents are sufficiently concerned/functional to get their kids into the charters, magnets or voucher-supported privates. (In some magnets, where admission is based on academic achievement rather than lottery among applicants, there is tracking based on a combination of parent and student characteristics. It is these magnets that are, not surprisingly, most vulnerable to political pressure to add a few low-achieving students to the otherwise high-achieving school enrollment.)

    All very frustrating.


  2. Labor Lawyer: I think it’s a fantasy that peer pressure can result in educational miracles. Yes, some students can manage to overcome their shortcomings when motivated by their classmates. But most cannot and will either give up or disrupt learning for others. Reformers want us to believe that integrating students of different abilities is a panacea. That’s why I, too, support tracking. It allows teachers to tailor instruction to the needs of their students, rather than take a shotgun approach.


  3. As a former math teacher, I have not found the “PEER EFFECT” work successfully.
    If it worked, everyone would be taking A.P. Calculus.
    This reminds me of the principle that everyone should get a trophy.
    We are all different and that should be celebrated.


  4. mathcoach2: I completely agree. It’s why I’m against eliminating the Specialized High Schools Admissions test for entrance into New York City’s eight elite high schools in the name of diversity. Being surrounded by super bright and motivated students is not enough to overcome deficits. Yes, it will help up to a point, but that’s about all.


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