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How Do School Peers Influence Student Educational Outcomes? Theory and Evidence From Economics and Other Social Sciences


by Douglas N. Harris — 2010

Background: Interest among social scientists in peer influences has grown with recent resegregation of the nation’s schools and court decisions that limit the ability of school districts to consider race in school assignment decisions. If having more advantaged peers is beneficial, then these trends may reduce educational equity. Previous studies have outlined individual or groups of theories about how peers influence one another, but these theories have rarely been subjected to empirical tests.

Focus of Study: This study provides a description of a wide range of peer influence theories from psychologists, sociologists, and economists. A taxonomy is developed that distinguishes theories based primarily on whether students are hypothesized to change each other’s beliefs and values (direct influences) versus more indirect influences, such as the allocation of teachers and school resources. Whether empirical evidence, including important new advancements by economists, informs the validity of the various theories is then considered. Although far from definitive, the study highlights the importance of carrying out empirical analysis that tests specific theories.

Research Design: Quantitative researchers are increasingly aware of the great difficulty of determining whether correlations between individual and group outcomes reflect a causal effect of peers. The review of empirical evidence focuses on experimental and quasi-experimental studies, which most plausibly reflect causal influences. These studies focus on student achievement as the outcome of interest.

Conclusions: The evidence is not completely consistent with any single theory, though it is more supportive of some over others. A new hybrid theory—group-based contagion—is proposed that is more consistent with the evidence.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 112 Number 4, 2010, p. 1163-1197
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15663, Date Accessed: 10/16/2017 10:11:58 PM

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About the Author
  • Douglas Harris
    University of Wisconsin at Madison
    E-mail Author
    DOUGLAS N. HARRIS is an economist and associate professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His research interests include teacher quality, accountability, school choice, and achievement gaps. His work on test-based accountability, peer effects, and “high flying schools” have influenced recent policy debates about the reauthorization of NCLB and other efforts to reduce achievement gaps. He chaired the National Conferences on Value-Added, held in Madison, Wisconsin, and Washington DC in 2008, which examined ways of estimating teachers’ contributions to student achievement, and potential uses and misuses for these measures in accountability and school improvement efforts. The two events and commissioned papers were funded by the Joyce and Spencer Foundations and the Carnegie Corporation. He has also recently led several projects investigating the relationship among teacher value-added, teacher credentials, and principals’ evaluations of teachers. In addition to his academic research, he is also a consultant and advisor to policy makers and educational organizations such as Educational Testing Service, National Academy of Sciences, National Council of State Legislatures, the Albert Shanker Institute, the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE), and state education agencies.
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