Public School Choice: Magnet Schools, Peer Effects, and Student Achievement

    Focusing on magnet school students, this study considers how peer influences affect student performance by examining students who win and lose the lotteries and tracking their progress over time.  The study builds on previous research that analyzed five years of data from the Metropolitan Nashville Public School System, comparing magnet and regular public school student achievement, and examining the extent to which magnet school performance is due to favorable peer effects.  Using newly available data, this study will extend that research to consider three areas: whether magnet school effects persist through the end of middle school, and, for students who return to regular public schools, into high school; whether the results are cumulative; and the nature and extent of peer influences in middle and high school. 

    The previous research finds positive magnet effects and even larger peer effects in the middle school grades. Specifically, magnet schools raise academic achievement of fifth and sixth graders in mathematics, and in the more selective academic magnet, the positive effect on performance is fully explained by favorable peer effects. By contrast, controlling for peer characteristics diminishes only slightly the estimated effect of the non-selective magnets. Although peers do not explain the magnet school effect, peers have a dramatic impact on middle school achievement. The estimated difference between a school where students are 75 percent black and one in which students are 25 percent black is more than half a year’s normal growth in mathematics.

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The NCSC is funded by a 5 year, $13.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences. Its lead institution is Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. The center is housed on the campus of Peabody College, one of the nation's top graduate schools of education.