Harnessing Peer Effects in Education for Equity

In education, “peer effects” refer to the ways that classmates affect each other’s education. Keeping other important factors like teacher quality and classroom size constant, the level and behavior of classmates clearly influence a child’s learning. There are many studies showing that peer effects are real and how they operate. They mainly affirm the common sense saying that “iron sharpens iron.”

Parents are aware of educational peer effects, and it drives what schools they choose. “Nice White Parents” like me ultimately avoid sending our children to high-poverty schools because we believe no amount of programmatic equalizing with richer schools can compensate for peer effects. It’s a devastating fact.

There have been many efforts since the 1960s to turn peer effects in favor of poor and racial minority students. Courts began by repeatedly ordering school districts to integrate and provide equal education quality across the entire district. Under a view that peer affects are important and rich peers are more beneficial to be around than poor peers, integration should have helped poor kids and hurt rich kids. This worked in some ways, but it sparked richer overwhelmingly White families to move into more homogenous school districts. We ended up with more residential segregation and just as much school segregation as before.

Today, most action around peer effects is in the school choice arena. In one way, school choice revisits and reverses effects of court-ordered integration. Enjoying multiple school choices makes it more viable for high-income families to live in low-income areas. Some school choice proponents argue that residential integration is actually more important than school integration per se, and that society is forced to accept a balance of the two because rich families are free to move.

In fact, charter schools tend to be more segregated by class and race than district schools. Many successful charter schools like Success Academy are run as boot camps that force discipline and engagement—helping class-driven differences to melt away similar to in the military. Others try to achieve the same end with extraordinary levels of in-group culture (i.e., cult-ishness).

These answers may be steps in the right direction, but they all involve compromise. Under court-ordered integration, the peer effects gains were temporary, reversed by residential sorting over time. Under school choice, poor and minority families are asked to accept segregated schools in exchange for desegrated neighborhoods. And positive peer effects in low-income schools are reserved for kids able to tolerate boot camp conditions.

Computerized instruction offers another solution that is developing, with yet another tradeoff. In a 1-student classroom, there are no peer effects. By decreasing the share of time during their day that students interact with each other in person, schools can concentrate on ensuring those interactions are positive. In addition, adults can choose from a much larger pool of potential peers for their student by relying on virtual peer interactions. The tradeoff is the disembodiment of one more aspect of life, earlier in childhood. It’s a step further into the Matrix.

I’ve laid out three imperfect options, none of which are clearly best: government-enforced mixing, boot camp-style discipline, or individualized virtual worlds. Consistent political wins by the school choice crowd over the past 25 years provide assurance that families’ choices will ultimately drive the winning policy combination, in some US states at least.

To conclude a fuzzy conclusion, one thing is certain. We should care. “Peer effects” are a euphemism to say you are your brother’s keeper. Acknowledged or not, we impact our neighbor’s wellbeing—in ways that sometimes conflict with our own family’s wellbeing.

As individuals, we should look for low-hanging fruit. Are there ways to benefit others with acceptable tradeoffs for you? In Jesus’ parable in Matthew 3, when the king held a wedding banquet and his rich friends didn’t show up, he didn’t cancel; he invited people off the street. By not allowing the meal to go to waste, the king identified low-hanging fruit to help the poor.

Written on August 24, 2022