The Dynamics of Peer Influence and Student Decision Making In An Era of School Choice

How do young people’s peer networks and school settings affect the decisions they make about their educational futures?

With school choice policies, parents can choose schools for their children as a way of ensuring they receive a quality education. But the change in school setting can also produce important changes in the children’s peer environments. For instance, public elementary students who continue to public middle schools stay in relatively similar peer environments. Public school students who transition to charter seventh grades, however, enter higher achieving peer environments that are similar to public school in terms of racial/ethnic and socio-economic characteristics. And public school students transitioning to private seventh grades experience peer environments that are both higher achieving and different racially, ethnically, and socio-economically from what they have previously experienced. Andrew and colleagues hypothesize that these changes in environment can affect peer relationships, that students choose friends who are like them in academic achievement, and that these choices influence achievement (e.g., students who befriend lower achieving peers will do less well in school). The proposed study will collect and evaluate new data on peer influence and its effects on a student’s academic behaviors, such as homework completion, school discipline interactions, academic outcomes, and expectations for further education and occupations. The focus will be on the sixth- to seventh-grade transition. The study will shed light on how changes in friendship choices, peers, and educational decision making can produce achievement gaps within and between schools. The findings will be of use to social science researchers and educational policymakers and practitioners interested in designing peer group policies to reduce educational inequalities.