Spread of Academic Success in a High School Social Network

Do students of a feather flock together, or are kids more like chameleons? This new study contends the latter, via evidence suggesting that students whose grades are higher or lower than their friends’ tend to become more like their peers over time. The researchers (members of a partnership between the National Science Foundation and a team of high school students) surveyed 158 teens at New York’s Maine-Endwell High School on the identities of their best friends, friends, and acquaintances, yielding three “social networks”; the authors then tracked all of these individuals’ GPAs over one year to compare their achievement with those in their networks. The results: Students whose peers outperformed them at the start tended to do better by the end of the year, while those whose peers underperformed them were more likely to see their grades slip. This effect was stronger among friends than among acquaintances or, oddly, best friends. The authors theorize that academic habits are “socially contagious” in much the same way as are fashions and fads (though they note that it could simply be, for example, that students “on the way up” tend to seek out and attract higher-performing friends—ditto students who are beginning to slide). Still and all, such findings may have important implications for ed policy. For instance, while lower-performing students may benefit from the company of stronger performers (at least if they become friends), could such mixing wind up harming high performers? We eagerly await more research on this issue. Meanwhile, we’re brushing up on the statistical (and genetic) concept of “regression to the mean.”

SOURCE: Deanna Blansky et al., Spread of Academic Success in a High School Social Network (PLOS ONE, February 2013).

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