Study: Attending the ‘best’ high school may actually worsen a child’s odds of future success

TÜBINGEN, Germany — The now-infamous college admissions scandal involving affluent American families has made it quite clear that some parents will go to great lengths to ensure their children attend top schools. But recent research shows that selective, elite schools with high-achieving students may actually wind up being more harmful to a child’s future than it is helpful.

“Above and beyond students’ individual capabilities and their family background, more selective schools provided both benefits and risks to students, which translated into real-world differences in their careers years later,” says lead researcher Richard Göllner of the University of Tübingen in Germany, in a release by the Association for Psychological Science. “Specifically, being in a high school with a higher average socioeconomic background benefited students later on, whereas being in a school with a higher average achievement level harmed students later on.”

The researchers analyzed data pulled from from Project TALENT, a nationally representative American study that followed high school students for 50 years. Participants in the study, which included 377,015 students from 1,226 schools, completed several measures assessing their academic competencies, family background, and life outcomes.

Researchers evaluated the students’ education achievements, income, and professional standings 11 years and 50 years from their first assessment. They found that students who attended high schools where the majority of the student body came from high-income families typically completed more years of schooling, earned higher incomes, and had more prestigious occupations versus students in less advantaged schools.

Yet students in high-achievement schools showed the opposite: those participants were more likely to have lower educational attainment, income, and occupational prestige.

Researchers believe the findings may indicate that students at socioeconomically advantaged schools set the bar higher for themselves, whereas those at high-achieving schools had less lofty expectations — perhaps because they assume they don’t need to. Students comparing themselves and their abilities to their classmates is also believed to be a factor.

“The permanent comparison with high achieving peers seemed to harm students’ beliefs in their own abilities and that was associated with serious consequences for their later careers,” says Göllner. “We want to figure out what teachers can do to make sure that students’ positive beliefs in their own academic capabilities are not harmed by being surrounded by high-achieving peers.”

Of course, the authors point out that most schools with an already well-to-do student body also tend to have higher performing students, resulting in what they say are “lost gains.”

The study was published in the journal Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

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