The influence of high-ability pull-out classes on the self-image of children

This guest post by Jeroen Janssen (Utrecht University) was originally posted in Dutch here.

Many elementary schools have high-ability pull-out classes for children who perform above average. A high-ability pull-out class is where high-achieving students spend several hours a week with others. In a new study in Contemporary Educational Psychology, Suzanne Gerritsen and colleague Lisette Hornstra examined the effects of high-ability pull-out classes on the self-esteem of selected students and those who are not. These results show that these classes positively affect the self-esteem of selected students. Incidentally, this effect becomes smaller when many students participate in the plus class. Moreover, in those situations, plus classes have a greater negative effect on the self-esteem of unselected students.

The abstract of the study:

According to self-determination theory, one of the basic psychological needs is the need to feel competent. Within this theoretical framework, little attention has been paid to how comparisons with peers may affect students’ need for competence. The aim of this study was therefore to examine how reference group effects are associated with primary school students’ need for competence. Thereto, this study focused on high ability pull-out classes as these provide the opportunity to compare competence perceptions both between students participating and not participating in high-ability pull-out classes and within high ability students across their two educational contexts. Competence satisfaction and frustration were assessed twice in 3rd-6th graders (Mage = 9.83, SD = 1.20) with one year in between. Results of multilevel analyses showed that high-ability pull-out students (N = 221) reported higher levels of competence satisfaction and lower levels of competence frustration than their classmates not participating in pull-out classes (N = 1,754), while controlling for individual and class-average achievement. Furthermore, when less classmates were selected to participate in the pull-out program (i.e., higher selectivity) both pull-out students and non-participating students reported higher competence satisfaction and lower competence frustration. Pull-out students reported higher levels of competence satisfaction and lower levels of competence frustration in their pull-out class than in their regular class. In all, the findings suggest that assimilation effects outweighed big-fish-little-pond effects, possibly because of the high salience of membership of the high ability pull-out class. When implementing a high ability pull-out class in primary school, the consequences for students participating as well as for those not participating should be taken into account.

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