do peer effects matter? nah

There’s long been a belief that peer effects play a significant role in how well students perform academically – that is, that learning alongside higher-achieving peers likely helps students achieve themselves, while learning alongside lower-achieving peers might drag them down. Is that the case?

Probably not. The newer, larger, higher-quality studies don’t show evidence for that in quantitative outcomes, anyway. A large study looking at exam schools in New York and Boston – that is, selective public high schools in large urban districts – found that even though enrolling in these institutions dramatically increased the average academic performance of peers (thanks to the screening process to get in), the impact on relative performance was essentially nil. That’s true in terms of test metrics like the PSAT, SAT, and AP Scores, and in terms of college outcomes after graduation. It just doesn’t matter much. A study among students transitioning from the primary school level to the secondary school level in England, where dramatic changes occur in peer group composition, found a significant but very small effect from peer group in quantitative indicators. Like, really small. Assuming the null is a pretty good bet in a lot of education research.

Of course, none of this means there’s no human value in sending your kids to school with elite peers. There are many things that matter in life beyond quantitative education indicators. (Though you’d never know that if you listen to some pundits.) Your kids may find their school experience more pleasant, and it may help them network later in life, if they attend school with high achievers. On the other hand, it will inevitably increase the homogeneity of their learning environment, which seems less than ideal to me in a multicultural democracy like ours. Public schools that are struggling desperately need financial secure parents who have the social capital necessary to advocate for them, too. Either way, though, if you’re worrying about how peer effects will impact your kid’s outcomes, you shouldn’t. Like an awful lot of things that parents worry about when it comes to their children, it just doesn’t matter much.

notes for 3/31/17

  • The first book review should be out for subscribers today! It’s a reprint of an academic review I wrote, but in the future they’ll all be new content. Just need a week to read a couple more books appropriate for this blog. This is the first time I’ve ever distributed a reward through Patreon so please let me know if you didn’t receive an email or can’t access the review. If you’re not a subscriber yet, think it over! I’m exploring some cool options for other rewards and I hope to let you know about some of them soon.
  • Be sure to spread the word about this project if you like it.
  • Some readers have pointed out that the rates for SAT participation in some states are so low (mentioned in this post) because those states require the ACT as a learning assessment. Which is certainly true! But note that the point of that post isn’t to say “look at how low these participation rates are” but rather to explore selection bias, which in the case of ACT-dominant regions would be even more pronounced – only the very motivated students, particularly those looking to attend elite private institutions, would be likely to take the SAT.
  • I have gotten a fair amount of pushback on the idea that randomized trials of charter school efficacy aren’t really random. I agree that this is an idea that I need to explore at greater length in the future. In addition to what I suspect is lurking non-random distribution, I think the bigger question is whether “charter school” even makes sense as a condition suitable for randomization. More to come.
  • On the other side, I appear to have been too kind to the CREDO studies. To call survivorship bias a demonstration of quality on the part of charters is just… not cool.
  • The first Study of the Week post should come out on Monday. It’s a big meaty one and I’m really happy with how it’s shaping up. Not 100% sure but I’m guessing I’ll distribute book reviews on the weekend and do Study of the Week on Monday or Tuesday. And feel free to email me with suggestions or requests.

welcome to the ANOVA

Hi there, my name is Freddie deBoer. I’ve been blogging off and on since 2008. I’ve also written for many newspapers, magazines, and websites. (You can see some of my published writing by clicking the My Work tab above.) In my professional life, I work at Brooklyn College in the City University of New York in the Office of Academic Assessment, where I work with faculty to help them develop and implement faculty-led assessments of student learning, and as coordinator of the Writing Across the Curriculum program. This project, a new blog called the ANOVA, is designed to combine those two parts of my life while narrowing and focusing my engagement.

The ANOVA will be about education research and education policy. That way, I can continue to work and research in education in my professional life, and take the reading and engagement I’m doing and make them useful for a popular audience. I will discuss major trends in education, legislation and federal policy related to education, new and existing research in the field, and the philosophy and purpose of education. I expect I will post 3-4 times a week. One of these posts will be a Study of the Week, where I look at a prominent, problematic, or interesting research study in education, whether old or new, discussing the findings and what they mean for the broader world.

I will be attempting to monetize this blog through Patreon, so please consider pledging to support this project financially. Those who contribute $5 a month or more will get access to a weekly book review. If the amount of contributions exceeds my expectations, I will think of other ways to reward patrons. You can also make a one-time donation on PayPal.

Why “the ANOVA”? Because the term, which stands for Analysis Of VAriance, refers to a statistical technique commonly used in education research; because the attempt to define how variance in educational outcomes are determined by predictor variables is perhaps the essential question in quantitative study of education; and because it’s a beautiful word.

I will not avoid talking about the political dimensions of education. Education is an inherently political topic. However, this will not be a political blog and will feature no political writing that is not narrowly focused on education. I will not, for example, weigh in on the campus political wars in this space. When in doubt, I will err on the side of not engaging if a subject is not clearly directly concerned with education. Please bear that in mind if you’re thinking about contributing. It should go without saying that this project will not be affiliated with or endorsed by Brooklyn College in any way, and that I will not be working on it during my regular work hours.

I’ve gotten a lot out of writing online, but it has had downsides, especially concerning people targeting my employment. Online politics, are not good for my mental well-being. As someone with poor impulse control and bipolar disorder, it’s best to limit my political engagement in digital mediums that favor immediacy over thoughtfulness. I also have found much better ways to utilize my political energy in recent months. Since moving to New York I’ve gotten involved in my own union, in a tenant’s union, and in local education politics, along with attending many protests. This has been wonderful for my mood and sense of political purpose. Online politics leave me discouraged and unhappy; offline politics make me hopeful and energized. So I intend to keep my political engagement squarely offline.

This is a modest project with modest goals. I want an outlet where I can write for a small audience of interested people and share a little of my expertise and my opinions. I’m hoping to carve out a niche where I can engage productively and professionally about topics related to my expertise and which I am passionate about. I hope you join me.