EF: You’ve looked at the question of how much peers matter. Many parents obviously seek schools where they believe their children will have higher-quality peers, whatever they may mean by that term. You and your co-authors have looked at Boston and New York City selective public schools, and you concluded that peer effects don’t seem to matter much. Why is that?
Angrist: I’m always beating that drum. I think people are easily fooled by peer effects. Parag, Atila Abdulkadiroglu, and I call it “the elite illusion.” We made that the title of a paper. I think it’s a pervasive phenomenon. You look at the Boston Latin School, or if you live in Northern Virginia, there’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. And in New York, you have Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science and Stuyvesant.
And so people say, “Look at those awesome children, look how well they did.” Well, they wouldn’t get into the selective school if they weren’t awesome, but that’s distinct from the question of whether there’s a causal effect. When you actually drill down and do a credible comparison of students who are just above and just below the cutoff, you find out that elite performance is indeed illusory, an artifact of selection. The kids who go to those schools do well because they were already doing well when they got in, but there’s no peer effect from being exposed to higher-achieving peers.
We also have papers where we show that the elite illusion is not just a phenomenon relevant for marginal kids. This is in response to an objection that goes, “If you’re the last kid admitted to Stuyvesant, it’s not good for you because you’re not strong enough.” We can refute that with some of our research designs.
There are good stories and analyses throughout.