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Is coaching a worthwhile educational investment for parents?

By Dianna Kenny - posted Thursday, 5 August 2004


Parents seeking to give their children the best chance in life through education are increasingly turning to private coaching to give their children an “extra edge”. Coaching is a burgeoning, multi-billion dollar industry that has not yet been subjected to external accreditation and currently regulates itself despite overtures to government from some of us in the education profession and the community.

Why does coaching matter? First, if coaching in test-taking skills is effective, failure to provide such skills training to students who cannot afford the fees for private tuition creates social inequalities in educational opportunities. Children who have coaching will be more likely to gain academic scholarships, places in selective classes and schools, and entrance to university courses. Second, and importantly given my recent work, if short-term test-taking skills courses enhance performance on selection tests, then those test scores may be invalid as indicators of academic ability. They may skew the selection criteria for entry into selective schools such as those in New South Wales, and for entry to university courses. Finally, students who spend after-school hours at academic coaching colleges are not spending those hours playing sports, engaging in other extra-curricular activities or simply playing with friends – and these are all activities necessary for the development of well-adjusted and creative adults.

From my research, I concluded that coaching will not generally give children that “extra edge” that parents talk about. In fact, the self-selection of children with high IQs may give coaching a better name than it deserves. My findings were that IQ is by far the best predictor of success in selection tests. At the same time, it is children with higher IQs who are much more likely to be coached. But coaching colleges cash in on the perception that it is coaching, and not IQ, that makes the difference when it comes to test results. We suspect some potential buyers of coaching may be labouring under a misapprehension that coaching will increase their child’s chances of success.

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My study is the first Australian study to assess the effects of coaching on entrance to classes for the Gifted and Talented, selective high schools, and scholarship award examinations in primary school children. I conducted this research at MLC Burwood, an independent girls’ school in New South Wales. Most students were enrolled year-round in group coaching sessions of about two hours each. About half attended one session a week, while a third went twice and the remainder more frequently.

I found that coaching specifically for test-taking significantly increased the chances of Year 4 students gaining entry into classes for the Gifted and Talented. To a lesser extent, coaching positively influenced the probability of Year 6 students gaining entry into selective high schools. It had no effect on the Year 6 scholarship exam for independent schools. As I’ve said, IQ was the best predictor of all three outcomes. It is likely parents calculate the probability of their children winning scholarships or gaining competitive entry before enrolling them in coaching colleges.

For younger students, I found that intensive coaching in novel testing formats is indeed helpful when it comes to an offer of a place in a class for the Gifted and Talented. However, while coaching works for these students, there is a competing trend: the tests themselves are evolving to place greater emphasis on written expression and language arts – areas that are less amenable to coaching than the mathematical disciplines. As students get older the additional impact of coaching for tests becomes less pronounced because their intellect has matured and they have encountered these sorts of tests before.

I was particularly interested in the finding that for some students, coaching could have made a difference to their being awarded a place at a selective high school – or missing out. What is not yet known is whether coached students actually cope with the competitive environment they are moving into.

While I was able to collect accurate information on the amount and type of coaching, I was not able to assess the quality of coaching. External accreditation of coaching colleges may have shed some light, and seems all the more relevant given recent federal government announcements about literacy tutors.

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Article edited by Margaret-Ann Williams.
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About the Author

Dr Dianna Kenny is Professor of Psychology at The University of Sydney.

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