High schools with larger student bodies, more academic freedom more likely to have cliques

A new sociology study suggests two factors influence whether cliques and segregated groups form in high schools:

Cliques form because people are often attracted to people of the same race, class, gender, and age as themselvesthis is not a novel idea, and in sociology, this concept is called homophily (“love of the same”). But Daniel McFarland, an education professor at Stanford and the lead author of the study, discovered that this tendency to segregate is much more prevalent in large schools and schools that provide students with more academic freedom. A news release about the study explains: “Schools that offer students more choicemore elective courses, more ways to complete requirements, a bigger range of potential friends, more freedom to select seats in a classroomare more likely to be rank-ordered, cliquish, and segregated.”…

The researchers used two datasets for the study: one to examine friendships on the classroom level, and the other to explore schoolwide relationships. The classroom-level dataset compared two extremely different schools. One was a traditional, tracked, Midwestern high school made up of mostly white students. The other was a magnet school in a “distressed” neighborhood of a large city that was diverse along racial and economic lines, but “homogenous in achievement.”…

McFarland and his team found that, in contrast with the larger more flexible schools, schools with a more rigid academic atmosphere usually fostered friendships based on intellectual interests and common activities. (This was true both on the classroom level and on a school-wide level.) Throughout the study, large schools are often equated with less rigid schools, because most of these more stringent institutions were private schools, and thus were smaller…

The takeaway, McFarland said, is that “the way we organize schools will have repercussions” for students’ interpersonal relationships. Teachers and administrators may think they cannot influence their students’ social fabric, but they can. Schools can “indirectly direct” the way that social networks form, by providing more or fewer choices for students. This influence can be used to promote student friendships across intellectual or academic commonalities, rather than external traits. McFarland thinks this knowledge can be used for the better: By designing schools that encourage students to associate based on common interests, we can avoid “creating boundaries that correspond with inequities that already exist in society.”

In other words, giving students more choices – whether of potential relationships or between classes – allows them to form or join groups in the ways that many people do: along existing race/ethnicity and social class lines. Of course, students are likely to lobby for more choices as might their parents because (1) choice is often seen as a good in itself in American society and education and (2) high school is viewed as a place where students should be making more of their own choices and expressing independence. Yet, it sounds like structures can constrain them in certain ways for their own good.

It would be interesting to know the long-term consequences of being in more constrained high schools. Once students hit college or leave the education system, do they revert back to cliques or is there some lasting effect of these structures?