Take 5: The Science of Back-to-School Season
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Social Impact Aug 3, 2018

Take 5: The Science of Back-to-School Season

Why sending your kid to the “best” school may backfire, and other education research from Kellogg faculty.

A child makes a choice from a large choice set.

Yevgenia Nayberg

It’s time to dust off backpacks, shop for three-ring binders, and embrace that potent mix of excitement and stress that a new school year can conjure.

To ease you and your chil­dren through the tran­si­tion, we’ve com­piled some of our favorite edu­ca­tion research from Kel­logg faculty. 

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1. Get­ting Your Kid into the Best Pos­si­ble School Can Backfire

Your child didn’t get into the school of her (or your) dreams? There may be an upside.

Mov­ing to a new, more elite insti­tu­tion comes with a shift in sta­tus. At their old school, they may have been at the top of their class; now, they might rank in the mid­dle or bot­tom, even though their intel­li­gence lev­el has not changed.

Jörg Spenkuch, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of man­age­r­i­al eco­nom­ics and deci­sion sci­ences, and coau­thors found that this down­grad­ing in aca­d­e­m­ic rank can sig­nif­i­cant­ly increase the risk of aca­d­e­m­ic and behav­ioral prob­lems — indeed, exact­ly the types of issues par­ents were like­ly try­ing to avoid by chang­ing schools. 

The results come both from a math­e­mat­i­cal mod­el and real-world data.

In one study, the researchers ana­lyzed data from Kenya where stu­dents from 60 pri­ma­ry schools were ran­dom­ly assigned to new class­es. With the shuf­fling, a high-rank­ing stu­dent might find her­self low­er on the totem pole in her new class, or vice versa. 

The researchers com­pared the per­for­mance of kids with sim­i­lar skill lev­els who end­ed up with dif­fer­ent rank­ings. They found that an increase in class rank was linked to high­er scores on stan­dard­ized tests 18 months later. 

It seems to be good to be a big fish in a small pond,” Spenkuch says.

A sec­ond study tracked New York City pub­lic school stu­dents as they switched from ele­men­tary to mid­dle school. Drop­ping in class rank appeared to make stu­dents act out more. If one kid fell from the 75th to 25th per­centile upon enter­ing mid­dle school and anoth­er rose from the 25th to 75th per­centile, the first stu­dent was more like­ly to have at least one record of mis­be­hav­ior than the sec­ond student.

The researchers are not say­ing that high-achiev­ing stu­dents should not move to bet­ter schools. With the pos­i­tive changes that come from such a move, such as bet­ter teach­ers or new­er facil­i­ties, it might still be a good idea at the end of the day,” Spenkuch says. But par­ents should keep in mind that the tran­si­tion also may bring some challenges.

2. Avoid­ing Too Many Choices

If teach­ers want to keep a student’s nose in a book, they may be bet­ter off giv­ing them just two to three titles to choose from, rather than a hefty stack. That’s because offer­ing chil­dren too many choic­es can lead them to spend less time engaged with the choice they ulti­mate­ly make. 

In this way, chil­dren aren’t so dif­fer­ent from the rest of us.

Psy­chol­o­gists and mar­keters have found evi­dence that, among adults, hav­ing lots of choic­es can feel over­whelm­ing or make us regret­ful of our final choice — a phe­nom­e­non known as choice overload.” 

Michal Maimaran, a clin­i­cal asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing, won­dered how an abun­dance of choice might affect chil­dren, par­tic­u­lar­ly how much they actu­al­ly engage with their final selec­tion. After all, she says, what mat­ters most is, after you chose some­thing, what do you do with it?” 

In sev­er­al stud­ies, she showed that when kids pick from a large set of options, they spend less time engaged with their choice than when they pick from a small set.

In one study, for exam­ple, preschool­ers were asked to select a book from a set of either two or sev­en Curi­ous George titles. Maimaran found that chil­dren who picked between two books spent less time arriv­ing at their choice and more time look­ing at the book com­pared with chil­dren who chose from among sev­en options.

In a sim­i­lar exper­i­ment with sets of blocks, kids who picked from a set of two spent twice the time play­ing with the blocks com­pared with chil­dren who picked from among six options.

3. Put On a Hap­py Face?

Think­ing of telling your son or daugh­ter to put on a hap­py face on the first day of school? 

That might be exact­ly the right thing to do. Or it might com­plete­ly backfire.

A study by mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sor Aparna Labroo and Ping Dong, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing, shows that smil­ing makes some peo­ple feel good. For oth­ers, though, it trig­gers neg­a­tive emo­tions and ends up mak­ing them feel worse. 

For some peo­ple, we found that if you try too hard to enjoy some­thing, it reminds you that you’re not enjoy­ing the sit­u­a­tion,” Labroo says. When you start feel­ing uncom­fort­able about try­ing to fit in, that can make you feel not good.” 

The dif­fer­ence comes down to people’s beliefs about why peo­ple smile. For some­one who believes peo­ple smile because they are already feel­ing hap­py, then smil­ing, indeed, makes them feel hap­pi­er and have more fun. But the oppo­site is true for those who believe peo­ple smile because they are try­ing to become hap­py. For them, smil­ing can actu­al­ly be a downer. 

So what’s Labroo’s advice to some­one walk­ing into a new set­ting who wants to make a good impres­sion? Should they put on a hap­py face? 

Yes, a smile is good,” she says. It’s social. No one wants to see a grouch. It’s always good to push your­self out­side your com­fort zone. But it becomes prob­lem­at­ic when you try too hard, when look­ing hap­py becomes a very con­scious and uncom­fort­able thing. If you’re try­ing to fake it, at some point you know.” 

4. Help­ing First-Gen­er­a­tion Col­lege Stu­dents

It’s back to school for col­lege stu­dents, too. This tran­si­tion can be par­tic­u­lar­ly thorny for stu­dents who do not have col­lege-edu­cat­ed par­ents. First-gen­er­a­tion col­lege stu­dents tend to lag behind their peers, in part because of the stress of adjust­ing to a cul­ture they have lit­tle expe­ri­ence navigating.

But a sin­gle hour-long meet­ing could go a long way toward revers­ing that trend, accord­ing to research from Nicole Stephens, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions, and colleagues.

More than a hun­dred stu­dents, some of whom were first-gen­er­a­tion col­lege-goers, attend­ed a meet­ing that took place dur­ing the first few weeks of their fresh­man year. One group attend­ed a meet­ing where seniors dis­cussed their col­lege expe­ri­ence in light of their social back­grounds, while anoth­er group attend­ed a meet­ing where social back­ground was nev­er mentioned.

Two years lat­er, each stu­dent was asked to give a short speech and per­form a series of stress­ful tasks, includ­ing a GRE-style test and a word-search puzzle.

The results were clear: In their speech­es, stu­dents who had attend­ed the meet­ing where social class was dis­cussed — regard­less of their own social sta­tus — were more com­fort­able dis­cussing their own back­ground and its influ­ence on their col­lege lives. The first-gen­er­a­tion par­tic­i­pants in this group also showed more phys­i­o­log­i­cal thriv­ing, as mea­sured by changes in their neu­roen­docrine levels.

It’s a self-rein­forc­ing process,” Stephens says. If you change how peo­ple are mak­ing sense of their expe­ri­ence at a tran­si­tion­al moment, you can change their behav­ior, and that in turn will influ­ence how they expe­ri­ence their environment.”

5. Assess­ing STEM Degrees and Inno­va­tion

Push more stu­dents into STEM (sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy, engi­neer­ing, or math) degree pro­grams and the econ­o­my will boom — right? After all, grad­u­at­ing with a STEM degree leads to bet­ter job prospects. Sure­ly boosts in inno­va­tion and long-term eco­nom­ic growth will follow. 

But a Kel­logg study sug­gests that an increase in STEM grad­u­ates does not always have a pos­i­tive effect on innovation. 

Nico­la Bianchi, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of strat­e­gy, col­lect­ed data on Ital­ian high school stu­dents who — as a result of a 1961 edu­ca­tion­al reform — sud­den­ly had access to new edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties at the uni­ver­si­ty lev­el. By track­ing these stu­dents’ sub­se­quent patent records and com­par­ing them with those of sim­i­lar stu­dents who grad­u­at­ed before 1961, Bianchi and a col­league were able to tell what uni­ver­si­ty edu­ca­tion actu­al­ly did for innovation. 

They found that, sur­pris­ing­ly, the most tal­ent­ed STEM high school stu­dents actu­al­ly patent­ed much less after get­ting access to STEM majors then they had done before. 

A STEM edu­ca­tion, it turned out, opened up oppor­tu­ni­ties for these stu­dents beyond occu­pa­tions that tend to pro­duce patents. Get­ting a STEM degree made these peo­ple eli­gi­ble for oth­er types of jobs,” Bianchi says, and they took them.” 

Of course, Italy in the 1970s is quite dif­fer­ent from the Unit­ed States today. But Bianchi believes that at least one les­son from Italy’s expe­ri­ence is gen­er­al­iz­able: some eco­nom­ic sec­tors pro­duce more patents than oth­ers. And peo­ple with STEM degrees have skills that are in demand by mul­ti­ple sec­tors — includ­ing those that don’t pro­duce many patents. Think of the bril­liant physics stu­dents and com­put­er sci­en­tists who get lured away by lucra­tive jobs in finance. 

The rela­tion­ship between sci­en­tif­ic edu­ca­tion and inno­va­tion is tricky,” he says. 

Featured Faculty

Jörg L. Spenkuch

Associate Professor of Managerial Economics & Decision Sciences

Michal Maimaran

Research Associate Professor and Clinical Associate Professor of Marketing

Aparna Labroo

Professor of Marketing

Ping Dong

Assistant Professor of Marketing

Nicole Stephens

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations, Associate Professor of Psychology (Weinberg College, courtesy)

Nicola Bianchi

Assistant Professor of Strategy

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