So what happens to high school’s popular students? Research shows that they are more likely than outsiders to conform, which can also mean they’re less likely to innovate. They are more likely to be both targets and instigators of aggression — whether physical or relational, which includes rumors, gossip and backstabbing. They are more likely to drink and engage in other risky behaviors. Students who are popular and involved in aggression are less likely to do well in school. Psychologists point out that high-status cliques teach the exclusionary behavior that may be the foundation for eventual racism, anti-Semitism, sexism and other forms of bigotry.
That’s not to say, of course, that popularity in high school necessarily leads to mediocrity or worse in adulthood. But neither is there necessarily something wrong with a student merely because he is excluded by classmates. We don’t view a saxophonist as musically challenged if he can’t play the violin. He’s just a different kind of musician. A sprinter is still an athlete even if she can’t play basketball. She’s a different kind of athlete. Similarly, we might acknowledge that students who don’t follow the popular crowd’s lead aren’t any less socially successful; they’re just a different kind of social.
The education landscape would be so much more bearable if students could understand this. And if schools found better ways to nurture kids who reject the in-crowd image.