Notre Dame Sociologists Examine Issues Surrounding School Choice in Indiana

Author: Josh Weinhold

Notre Dame sociologists are undertaking major research initiatives analyzing the effects of Indiana’s school choice program, one of the largest in the United States.

Mark Berends Mark Berends

Mark Berends, a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Research on Educational Opportunity, is leading a study on how educational options impact schools and students, while Megan Andrew, an assistant professor of sociology, is leading a separate study on the social aspects of school choice policies.

Berends received a $1 million grant from the Spencer Foundation in October for a three-year study that involves that uses data that will draw comparisons among traditional public, charter, and private schools.

He will seek answers to questions surrounding student achievement gains, how charter schools are affected by choice programs, whether the impact from school vouchers are greater on certain racial or socioeconomic groups, and more.

“Our hope with this grant is to better understand the conditions under which schools are effective—or not—in improving student outcomes,” Berends said. “What we learn will help not only policymakers but educators in all types of schools.”

Megan Andrew Megan Andrew

Andrew, meanwhile, is studying the social impact on students moving from the public school system to charter or private schools.

Many students who make that change will be shifting to a vastly different peer environment, Andrew said, and the data they collect will help them understand how that shapes students’ peer relationships and the influence of those peer relationships on students’ academic outcomes. Do they form new friendships or maintain their old ones? And how do those new and old friends influence the way students think about their academic potential and the academic behaviors related to this thinking?

“Student achievement is not only shaped by the quality of teachers or textbooks in the classroom,” Andrew said. “It’s also shaped by the peer environment, something that school choice and mobility can change dramatically. We’re hoping to provide educators with a more robust picture of the impacts of school choice by studying how such policies alter peer relationships and the influence of those relationships on students’ perceptions and behaviors.”

Andrew and Jennifer Flashman, an affiliate of the Center for Research on Educational Opportunity, last year received a $600,000 grant from the W.T. Grant Foundation and a $50,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation in support of the research project.

The connections that Andrew has developed with Indiana education stakeholders through her research have also paid dividends for undergraduates through a new externship program in which students can work with policymakers on a project of mutual interest.

Students have earned credit for policy-related projects for the Indianapolis Office of Education Innovation and the Indiana Department of Education. Andrew hopes to expand the program to include other government and non-profit agencies in Indianapolis.