Education Issues: Peer Effects?

The gadflies at Fordham are stirring the pot again. Mike Petrilli takes issue with a recent statement from Kevin Welner, “(Tracking student progress) is a destructive practice that has the undeniable effect of lowering expectations and opportunities for students who have already fallen behind.” As far as Mr. Welner is concerned the debate is ideasclosed….

But ask any teacher of merit and I bet you’ll get a very different take. I track my students religiously. Better yet, I have them track themselves, rigorously.

At the beginning of each course students are informed how and WHY they must track themselves. Granted, I’m working primarily with adults, but when conveyed properly, tracking provides insight in to a process for improvement. We must teach children to understand their education, not just how to do the multiplication tables, but the value to be earned by doing so efficiently. In the short term, the value is test performance, in the long term, the value is enhanced contribution to society, earning power, or perhaps more powerful, avoiding the embarrassment of being the dumbest person in the room….

Mike Petrilli lucidly explains why Mr. Welner’s open/closed statement is a complete crock. And then goes on to enhance the debate:

But here’s where the debate—and the evidence—is still totally up for grabs: is pushing more kids into these higher classes (he mentions Advanced Placement classes) truly a cost-free reform? Are we sure that it doesn’t harm higher-achieving students, who might be slowed down by having peers that are coming into their class less prepared?

As I mentioned the other day, rigorous “peer effects” research by economists like Caroline Hoxby indicates that high achieving students benefit from being around other high achieving students. The trick is that, to a point, low-achieving students benefit from being around higher-achieving students too.

Test TrackingTo a point, low-achieving students make great gains surrounded by higher-achieving students. But there is a tip within a class – at a certain quantity of lower-achieving students, the median falls (the mean falls either way, it’s when the median falls that we have big trouble). A number of factors change as the average of the class falls. Teacher ability to infotain the full spectrum of students, intra-class attitudes, depth and breadth of material that can be covered . . .

Students know when someone doesn’t belong in the class. One person is not likely to be resented . . .

. . . 4 low students will be.

Those are students who in some cases are taking the spots of other mid-high achieving students who are closer in capabilities. That’s enough to tilt the AP Calculus class to pre-cal or calculus lite.

On more than one occasion I have had to back-off a lesson plan to accommodate particularly weak students even though ALL of my students are within a fairly narrow band of high-achievers. This is wholly unsatisfying as a teacher. My best students deserve the best. Having multiple levels of students in the “high-achieving” curriculum is destructive to our students at the top.

Allowing lower-achieving students to join high-achieving classes is a social experiment with repercussions in education. Not the other way around. Why should a star student be held back by someone who has not earned his/her way into the class?

But, the debate is open and I am open to feedback. If there is a way to optimize student experience, I’m all ears. Please leave your thoughts below.

See the full text of Mike’s article on education research at (page keeps moving).

Image courtesy of Matt Cornock and Celestine Chua

1 thought on “Education Issues: Peer Effects?”

  1. Hi Kate,

    certainly establishing expectations and tracking them is imperative for growth and improvement. How else will we know if there is real improvement or not?

    Happy Dating and Relationships,

    April Braswell

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