Why Private Schools are Missing the Best Kids

Hypothetically, let's say you ran a fancy private elementary school. Like other private schools in the region, you're competing to put out the brightest kids. And one of the ways you engineer this is through your admissions process – you try to select the kids who will get the most out of what your school has to offer. Kids who can handle the intellectual challenge, and who don't disrupt the class.

So, if you're like other private schools, you bring the five-year-old applicants in for some intellectual assessment, and you also set up some games and playrooms for them so that you can watch them for an hour or two – to monitor their behavior. You're looking for kids who get upset, withdraw, can't wait for their turn, dominate other kids, can't sit still, don't pay attention to the instructions, et cetera.

Then you admit the kids who looked best.

This seems innocuous. It's common practice.

However, according to an ongoing study in Germany, what you might have done is just reject some of the very best kids – the very type of kids you want in your school. Echoing what I wrote yesterday, kids' early behavior lies.

This study, by Gisela Trommsdorff and Antje Von Suchodoletz, is following a group of kids who are making the transition from kindergarten to first grade. At the beginning of kindergarten, the scholars measured these kids' reasoning ability with a test of their non-verbal intelligence. They also measured their goal-oriented self-control with a variation of Mischel's marshmallow task and a persistence test. The persistence test, for kids of this age, goes like this: kids are asked to draw a big circle. Then they're told by a teacher it's not quite circular enough, it's not good enough – do they want to try again? The child tries again. Every time, the teacher responds it's not circular enough. Of course, nobody can draw a perfect circle. What the test measures is how long a child can hang in there, continuing to try, when confronted with negative feedback. Some kids quit quickly, while others keep going through endless trials.

The scholars also got teachers to fill out behavioral-rating questionnaires about the children.

We would expect that kids with higher reasoning ability + higher persistence and self control would have less behavior problems. However, the scholars saw a very dramatic trend in the other direction:

High reasoning ability + High Persistence/Self-Control
= More behavior problems, not less

What the scholars believe is that Non-Verbal Intelligence disrupts the expected relationship between self-control and behavior. Theoretically, self-control and behavior should go hand in hand, and for low-IQ kids, that's absolutely true. But not for kids who are well above-average in reasoning ability. Why this is the case probably has something to do with the distinction between goal-oriented tasks and normal social interactions like playgroups where there is no actual goal to focus upon. Smart kids' behavior in the latter context is probably not a good proxy for their ability to apply themselves in the former context.

I'm eager to see if Von Suchodoletz's finding is replicated by other scholars. If so, it doesn't mean private schools should start admitting the wild ones – that'd be absurd. What it suggests is that behavior is unreliable, even contraindicatory. Rather than being a window into their future, it's a kaleidoscope.