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Stuck in School: How Social Context Shapes School Choice for Inner-City Students


by Barbara F. Condliffe, Melody L. Boyd & Stefanie DeLuca — 2015

Background: High school choice policies attempt to improve the educational outcomes of poor and minority students by allowing access to high schools beyond neighborhood boundaries. These policies assume that given a choice, families will be able to select a school that supports their child’s learning and promotes educational attainment. However, research on the effects of public school choice programs on the academic achievement of disadvantaged students is mixed, suggesting that families do not necessarily respond to these programs in ways that policymakers intend.

Purpose: The purpose of this article is to identify how family and neighborhood contexts interact with public school choice policies to shape the educational opportunities of inner-city students. Specifically, we ask: What criteria are used to choose schools? What are the implications of these school choice decisions for students’ future educational and occupational opportunities?

Research Design: We use data from interviews and fieldwork conducted with 118 low-income African American youth ages 15–24 who attended Baltimore City Public Schools at some point during their high school career. Research on school choice tends to rely on data from parents, and we offer a unique contribution by asking youth themselves about their experiences with school choice.

Conclusions: Although school choice policies assume that parents will guide youths’ decision about where they go to high school, the majority of youth in our sample were the primary decision makers in the high school choice process. Additionally, these youth made these choices under considerable constraints imposed by the district policy and by their family, peers, and academic background. As a result, the youth often selected a school within a very limited choice set and chose schools that did not necessarily maximize their educational opportunity. Our results demonstrate that school choice policies must take into account the social context in which educational decisions are made in order to maximize chances for students’ individual academic achievement and to decrease inequality by race and social class.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 3, 2015, p. 1-36
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17808, Date Accessed: 3/24/2017 12:03:43 PM

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About the Author
  • Barbara Condliffe
    Johns Hopkins University
    E-mail Author
    BARBARA CONDLIFFE is a Research Associate at MDRC. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology from Johns Hopkins University. With Stephen Plank, she recently published “Pressures of the Season An Examination of Classroom Quality and High-Stakes Accountability” in the American Education Research Journal.
  • Melody Boyd
    State University of New York
    E-mail Author
    MELODY BOYD is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at The College at Brockport, SUNY. Her research focuses on the mechanisms that both exacerbate and mitigate urban poverty and the effects of neighborhoods on families. She has published several papers focused on housing mobility programs, including an article about disadvantaged youths’ alignment of educational and occupational ambitions, published in Sociological Studies of Children and Youth with Kimberly A. Goyette.
  • Stefanie DeLuca
    Johns Hopkins University
    E-mail Author
    STEFANIE DELUCA is an associate professor of sociology at the Johns Hopkins University. She studies the long-term effects of programs that help public housing residents relocate to safer neighborhoods and better schools through housing vouchers. Some of her other research examines the transition to college and work for inner-city young adults, and the housing and school decisions of low- and moderate-income parents. Recent publications include: DeLuca, Stefanie, Philip Garboden, and Peter Rosenblatt. 2013. “Segregating Shelter: How Housing Policies Shape the Residential Locations of Low Income Minority Families.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 647:268–299; and Bozick, Robert and Stefanie DeLuca. 2011. “Not Making the Transition to College: School, Work, and Opportunities in the Lives of American Youth.” Social Science Research 40:1249–1262.
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