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Cliques Thrive in Schools That Give Students More Choices, Study Says

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Students are more likely to organize in homogenous and hierarchical cliques in schools that offer them more choices, says a study published online today.

The study, published in the American Sociological Review explored how the "network ecology," or the organization, of a school influences students' social relationships.

"Schools that offer students more choice—more elective courses, more ways to complete requirements, a bigger range of potential friends, more freedom to select seats in a classroom—are more likely to be rank-ordered, cliquish, and segregated by race, age, gender, and social status," the journal says in a release.

Lead author Daniel McFarland, an education professor at Stanford University, found that such tight social arrangements are less likely to form at schools that limit social choices—encouraging students to interact based on school work rather than on the basis of their social lives—and at smaller schools, which "inherently offer a smaller choice of potential friends, so the 'cost' of excluding people from a social group is higher."

McFarland drew his conclusions after studying school-level data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and classroom-level data (surveys asking students who they "hung around with as friends," observations, and school records) he collected at two high schools in 2001. He analyzed student responses and observations about social interactions in light of various school traits, including size; diversity, and "electivity," which is defined as a student's freedom to make choices in areas like course selection.

The prevalence of social clustering, hierarchy, and segregation increased in schools that are larger and more diverse, the study found.

So what should schools make of this research? 

McFarland cautioned against some conclusions. Schools shouldn't respond by "tracking" students academically, taking away their course choices to force them into more varied social relationships, he said. The issues of adolescent social structures merit further study, he said, and different types of students will likely thrive in different types of environments.

"We have folk theories about which network arrangement is best, but we lack systematic empirical evidence," the study says. "Is it better to develop in an unstructured environment or a structured one, and for what type of child?"

The study theorizes that students form these social arrangements out of a need for security. Large environments and diverse peer groups lead many students to seek out people who are like them for comfort, and to form hierarchies that help them make sense of their environment. And choice in schools just makes it easier for students to form those social clusters.

So maybe the answer can be found in addressing those social and emotional elements, rather than taking the choices away all together.

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