Background/Context: Though cast in many styles and given different labels, the notion that one can improve schools by improving or changing the social context of learning is a common thread that runs through the arguments of many education reformers and scholars. Indeed, a common assertion in education reform is that one needs to create school environments with stronger community, where people are “better connected.” At the heart of such claims—and the topic of investigation for this article—is the notion that the nature of social interactions in schools is a crucial part of schooling.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: In this article, we use social network analysis—a powerful yet underused method in educational research—to gain insight into how social relations give rise to relative advantage within a group of students at a large public high school engaged in small-school reform. More specifically, we ask three questions of this sample of students: First, to what extent is academic performance “contagious” among peers? Second, after accounting for individual characteristics, is a student’s location in a social network, as indicated by network density, associated with academic performance? If so, is a norm-enforcing or horizon expansion mechanism primarily responsible for this association? Third, is there a joint effect of peer achievement and network density on academic performance?
Setting: A large urban public high school implementing a school-within-a-school reform.
Population/Participants/Subjects: Grade 10 students within one of the schools-within-a-school.
Research Design: We connect variations in network composition and network structure to hypotheses about the interpersonal mechanisms at work between students. We combine detailed network data on the social relations between students with individual-level data from school records and then attempt to exploit variation in network characteristics across students to make inferences about the role of social relations with respect to academic performance.
Data Collection and Analysis: The specific data come from two sources: (1) school administrative records that contained information on student grade point averages, absences, standardized test scores, and demographics, and (2) the administration of a Web-based social network survey asking students to cite those with whom they interact in several academic and social contexts.
Conclusions: We find that network composition (as measured by lagged peer achievement) and network structure (as measured the density of ties between a student’s peers) have no average association with student performance after accounting for individual-level characteristics. However, when interacting network composition and network structure, we find a significant joint effect. This implies that the advantages and disadvantages arising from a student’s social relations are context dependent and, moreover, suggests that in order to diagnose the impact of building stronger community in schools, it is necessary to consider the network structure of students’ relationships when examining the influence of peers.