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Peer Group Influence and Academic Aspirations Across Cultural/Ethnic Groups of High School Students

Final Report: Project 3.5

Annual Surveys

Principal Investigator: Patricia Gándara, UC Davis

Project Period: July 1997 to June 2001

Purpose of the Research: Peer groups play an important role in the academic achievement of adolescents. They form a critical part of the environment of schools, and they create and maintain a culture separate from the home and adult community in which adolescents are raised. Many young people spend more time with peers than with parents or other family members. Peers can exert extraordinary influence over each other, including the formation and support of personal goals and academic aspirations. Although we know that there are vast differences among ethnic groups with respect to academic aspirations, attitudes toward school, and preparation for post-secondary education, the great bulk of the research on peer influence and academic aspirations is based on homogeneous groups of white, middle class youth. Even where studies have included diverse populations, they often fail to do analyses by ethnicity, gender, and age. Moreover, the small body of research that describes the aspirations of ethnically diverse youth is based almost exclusively on surveys that capture point-in-time data.

This study examines how adolescents from different ethnic groups form their expectations about schooling and their post-secondary aspirations during the four years of high school, with a focus on how peers and families help to shape these attitudes and aspirations. It looks at students from both urban and rural contexts, and it uses ethnographic, survey, and interview/focus group data to provide a textured picture of the development of post-secondary aspirations of African American, Southeast Asian, Latino, and European American youth over time. We look at the differences among groups by age, gender, and urbanicity, and we find that there are important and interesting differences among these groups about which education policy makers should be acutely aware if they hope to create interventions that may help these students to be more successful in school.

Research Design


This study follows the class of 2001 from the time the students began high school in 1997 until the class graduated in 2001 in two large schools --an urban school located in Sacramento, California, and a rural school located in Dixon, California. While these schools are only about one half hour in driving distance apart, they quite literally exist in two separate worlds. The urban school has about 2,000 students, with an almost equal balance of European American, Latino, SE Asian, and African American students. It struggles with all of the typical problems of a low income, inner city high school-- transient students, faculty, and staff, inadequate facilities and materials, many alienated youth, and families with inadequate resources to help prepare them for postsecondary education and careers. Drugs, alcohol consumption, and violence are chronic issues at the school. The rural school, with about 1100 students of whom approximately 60 percent are European American and 40 percent are Latino, looks like a place out of the 1950s. The campus is clean, quiet, and orderly. There are few serious behavior problems at the school and the faculty turnover is about half of what it is at the urban school. But, these appearances obscure some very difficult issues beneath the surface, and the lives and futures of the students differ markedly by ethnicity and gender.

Data Collection Methods

The research team

An important aspect of the data collection methods is that they are woven into an ongoing relationship with the schools. The team of researchers complement and nurture each other. The data collection team is as follows:

PI: Gándara

2 Graduate Student Researchers: One Latina, One African American

4- 6 Undergraduate Research Assistants, Diverse, representing students in the schools

12 High School Student Coordinators: Diverse, representing students in the schools

The diversity of the research team, and their increasing closeness to the age and experience of the high school students, as one moves down the structure of the team, is a unique asset to the study. It has provided access and insights into student experiences that would not have been available otherwise. The graduate student researchers oversee the data collection, the undergraduate researchers help conduct the data collection, and the high school students coordinate activities at the schools sites and encourage the participation of students. All meet on a regular basis to review and analyze data, each contributing his or her particular perspective on issues.


Both quantitative and qualitative data inform this study, and data collection has been intensive. In the first year of the study, we spent at least one per week observing at the schools, in the classrooms, in the offices, on the campus, and interviewing all of the key staff members to gain a picture of the school, how it operated, how students grouped themselves, what was important to them. We were able to build ethnographic profiles of the schools on the basis of these observations and interviews. We also collected annual "report card" data on the schools.

An annual survey was administered at the beginning of each school year to all members of the class of 2001 in both schools that covers a set of questions that for which we have sought markers over time, and which is augmented and adapted each year to reflect the new stage of the students. For example, as students moved into the age of driving and working, new questions were added to tap students' experiences with these issues. Also, analysis of data and ongoing attention to the literature has resulted in the addition and modification of some items over time.

Students were administered, anonymously and voluntarily, the annual survey in their English classes. Because the coordination for this effort was intensive, and because teachers were reluctant to relinquish their teaching time, we were only able to survey in each class once. Students who were absent on those days were not surveyed.

After survey data were analyzed, the team decided which questions arose out of the survey data that can be illuminated in focus group format. For example, we wanted to know why Latinas and Asian females expressed concern about a lot of pressure to engage in sex, but African American girls did not. We wondered why Latino and African American males reported such good relationships with their parents, but also had the worst school records of all groups. Focus groups allowed us to explore these issues with students and make sense of the survey data.

A subsample of 120 students (80 from the urban school and 40 from the rural school) were selected on the basis of ethnicity, gender, and achievement level to provide us with an intensive sample that we could monitor closely over the four years. These students comprised the focus groups, and we collected grade data and exit survey data for them as well.

Focus group sessions were scheduled 3 or 4 times each year. Students were invited to come to lunch (pizza and sodas provided) and meet with a graduate student and undergraduate student group leader, usually who represented both the gender and ethnicity of the group. (Groups were divided by gender and ethnicity because of our experience with students being more frank in such settings.) Sessions were taped and transcribed.

We interviewed the parents of the focus group sample twice during the study by telephone --once at mid-study and once at the end, to gain their perspectives on parenting adolescents and preparing them for postsecondary opportunities. This was the most difficult data to collect and students from the same language groups as the parents did the interviews. It took several months to complete this data collection each time. This provided parental perspectives from the four different ethnic groups.

Data were collected from all teachers in the schools on their homework practices and views of the students' work efforts.

An important aspect of the study was our commitment to share information with parents and schools by conducting workshops for both parents and faculty on attitudes, values, and aspirations of diverse youth. We offered these in both English and Spanish, and we also used these workshops as opportunities to get feedback from faculty and parents about our emerging findings. This provided a source of triangulation for our research efforts.


Instruments developed for this study included (and are attached):


The sample in the first year consisted of 473 students from the four ethnic groups; 207 European American students, 94 from the urban school, and 113 from the rural school; 112 Latino students, 67 from the urban school and 45 from the rural school; 70 African Americans, all from the urban school, and 84 Southeast Asian students, all from the urban school. 52% of the sample was female.

Because of student attrition, the 12th grade sample consisted of 287 students, an attrition of about 40%, which is fairly typical for diverse, low income schools in California. The 12 grade sample consisted of 137 European American students, 50 urban and 87 rural; 82 Latino students, 39 urban, 43 rural; 30 urban African Americans, and 38 urban SE Asians. 51% of the 12th grade sample was female.

The focus groups sample began with 120 and ended with 93. Some students were replaced up to the 11th grade in order to keep the sample size up.

Unique Features of the Study

We think it is important to call attention to a couple features of this study that were unique and yielded collateral benefits that are normally not found in research studies in education. First, our team of researchers was composed of multi-layers of personnel from faculty to high school students. There were particular benefits to the undergraduate and high school students that we do not think are common. Each year we selected a group of 4 - 6 diverse undergraduates to work on the project (in some cases, we were able to hold onto students for more than one year, and in one case, a student went away to study abroad, and came back and rejoined us.) We have maintained strong relationships with many of these students and continued to advise them as they continued their studies into graduate and credential programs. Several students told us that they decided to become teachers as a result of their work on the project. At least four of our students have gone on to teaching or counseling credential programs. Others have gone on to graduate school. Since these students are very diverse--about 75% are Latino, African American or Southeast Asian--we think the project has made an important contribution to the local graduate school and teacher credential pipeline. And, we have been able to provide ongoing guidance for these students. The inclusion of high school students also provided important leadership opportunities for these students that led to a greater interest in higher education.

The second unique feature was the inclusion of parent and faculty workshops in the design of the study, and in campus visits for the students in the intensive sample. We held several of these at the schools, and at retreats held by the schools. They were extremely well-received, and on the evaluation form that teachers were asked to fill out after their mountain retreat, they marked our workshop as the most useful and interesting of the events that were planned. Parents became very engaged in the material that we presented, and were helpful to us in sorting out the information we had gathered on students. These workshops with parents were wonderful opportunities for us to get important perspectives that would otherwise be missing from the research. Finally, students were brought from the high school campuses to spend a day at the college campus and discussion groups and opportunities to attend some classes were provided to help motivate and orient them to college lifestyle.

Findings and Implications

The study began with four major questions, which were refined and modified as the study evolved. These were:

    1. Across ethnic groups, what factors influence the formation and change of friendship groups?
    2. Across ethnic groups, in what ways do peers influence, support, or undermine academic goals of their friends?
    3. What determines the relative influence of multiple friendship groups?
    4. Across ethnic groups, how do school and community context and family background mediate the influence of peers, and vice versa?

As the study has developed, we have refined our questions and shifted our focus

to reflect the reality of what we are finding in the schools and the limitations of our data. Below, I answer the initial questions that we posed, but many of the more interesting findings evolved from questions we pursued outside of the initial areas of inquiry, and these are discussed briefly at the end of this section, but are covered in greater depth in the attached published papers, and in papers that are now in development.

1) "What factors affect the formation and change of friendship groups?"

The first question we posed–"What factors affect the formation and change of friendship groups?"–was explored from a number of perspectives, including the role of musical tastes in choosing friends, and the role of school cliques in this process. Our data suggest that students gravitate towards others who they perceive to share similar tastes and dispositions to school and social life, but they do not so much select their friendship groups as make themselves available for selection by signaling their interests through dress, music, extracurricular activities, ethnic affiliation, and overtly expressed attitudes toward school and school activities.

We found that friendship groups responded to developmental trends and reflected the ethnicity of the students. All groups tend to choose their friends from among their own ethnic group, and this is fairly stable over time, although European Americans are the most likely to report that they choose friends from outside their own group. In the early years of high school friendship groups did not change very much, and students tended to remain with friends they had made before coming to high school. As their high school careers progressed, friendship groups tended to become larger, and individual friendships somewhat less intense, admitting a larger group of students. Changes that did occur tended be the result of students finding they were going in different directions --most typically, those students who decided they wanted to do well in school tended to shed relationships that they perceived were holding them back. Asian students demonstrated the least change in friendship groups and were more likely than other students to maintain strong bonds with the same students over time. Curriculum tracking certainly played a role in friendship group formation, as did issues of language. For example, the rural school was much more strictly tracked, with many Latino students being placed in vocational and general education or ESL tracks where they spent most of their days with only Latino students. Thus, it was not surprising that friendships groups tended to even more ethnically segregated in this school than in the urban school where there was somewhat less tracking, and more diversity.

2) Across ethnic groups, in what ways do peers influence, support, or undermine academic goals of friends? We were somewhat surprised to find that very few students admit to talking about future plans or even very much school-related information with friends. We thought this would change once students were in the 12th grade and high school graduation was imminent, but it did not. Most students claimed to be vaguely aware of their friends' post high school plans, but up till Spring of 2001, a great deal of time was not dedicated to this discussion within most friendship groups. Higher achieving students, and Asians, were much more likely to discuss these matters with friends. Conversation among friends usually does not center around school or how one does in school. Students know how their friends are doing through casual references and general information, but rarely broach the topic of achievement or future plans up to this point.

Students do mention the pep talks they give to friends who may be running the risk of drop out or failure, and confide that when they are performing poorly, they usually have a friend who will caution them as well. However, students tend to have close friends who perform very similarly to them, and so it is difficult for most friends to counsel against what they are doing. Students do not admit to overt messages from others to not perform well in school. Those few students in the sample who are high performers tend to be less connected to the informal social life of the school and have very highly scheduled time in order to get high grades. Very few Latino or African American students in either of these schools are high achievers and they maintain a certain independence from most other students.

The impact of peers on school achievement appears to occur via the culture of the individual groups, most of which do not place schooling at the center, and through the normative or reference groups by which students measure themselves. We go into much more detailed discussion of this in our paper, The Changing Shape of Aspirations . Most students’ group cultures are composed of features that have little to do with schooling —hanging out, sports, music. Students have a generalized perception of what their friends’ values are and they peg their own performance accordingly. Since most of the students in these two schools are not high achievers, their own moderate to low achievement is seen as standard for their context. Unfortunately, their achievement behaviors do not match their developing aspirations. Interestingly, Asian students perceived their friends as being concerned with doing well in school and wanting to sustain this image, although they claimed to not want their friends to think of them as being a good student themselves!

3) What determines the relative importance of multiple peer groups? This is a question that did not have much of an answer until the 12th grade data came in and then it provided us with powerful insights into the role of peers. As we began to study our data, we found that students had multiple peer groups both inside and outside of school. These were comprised of close friends, cliques, crowds, and reference groups. Students began to expand both the size and number of groups to which they belonged as they traveled through high school. The importance of these groups as influences on students' behavior also appeared to shift from close friends to the broader normative group as students got older and increased their experiences. Development appears to play a pivotal role in the importance of different peer groups, as well as new experiences, and to some extent ethnicity. Latinos were less likely to report the shift to the normative peer group, and rural students were more likely to report influence from the reference group than were urban students. European Americans were much more likely to report that they were influenced by the media --especially viewing other kids like themselves--than was any other ethnic group.

4) How do school and community context and family background mediate the influence of peers, and vice versa? Our findings here are lengthy and quite developmental in nature.

Developmental Trends:

    1. For all groups, grades go down as aspirations go up. From 8th through the 12th grade, students' grades continued to fall —even taking into consideration that many of the most at risk students dropped out–while their aspirations for postsecondary schooling have continued to rise. There is a clear mismatch in these trends, as students seem to believe that the time ahead, during which they may recover their grades, is limitless. Of course, 12th grade brings a readjustment in aspirations as students have to face the fact that 4 year college may be out of their reach if their grades are very low.
    1. A high percentage of rural Latinas in the first year of high school could not say what they intended to do upon completing high school. This is particularly worrisome because of high rate of drop out for Latinos in early grades, and low achievement outcomes. This changes over time for those who remain in school. Being in school does seem to have an impact on raising aspirations for these young women. However, Latinos in particular appear to lose confidence in the 11th grade, as they see what will be expected to go to college and they weigh their financial resources. At this point more than one-fourth of Latino students again contend that they do not know what they will do when they finish high school. These aspirations begin to recover in the 12th grade as they figure out they can still go to college, but not to a four year college.
  • Students are most vulnerable to peer opinion in the early years of high school, particularly with respect to the pressures they feel to engage in certain behaviors, or wear particular clothes in order to fit in. Students tell us that at the beginning of high school they did things they would not have done at later ages because of a desire to "fit in." Pressure to engage in risky behaviors tends to decline over the course of high school. As they get older, they become more autonomous and less likely to bend to peer pressures, but this does not mean that they necessarily are less influenced by peers. We believe that nature of influence changes such that the broader normative group --kids who represent the kind of person they want to be, kids they see represented in the media-- take on greater importance as models.
  • Students, especially white girls, begin to show an increasing reliance on parents and family members in shaping their postsecondary aspirations as the years progress. By the 12th grade, students report relying more on their parents for support and counsel, but many Asian and Latino students do not go to them for advice because their parents are unable to help them prepare for college.

Gender Differences

  • Asian females have the most tense relations with parents. There is considerable conflict with parents about behavioral issues as these more traditional —largely immigrant–parents place strict rules on the girls (more so than on the boys) and these girls say that they have little communication with their parents. On the other hand, they also are the highest academic performers of all groups
  • African American and Latino boys in the early grades of high school are the most likely to contend that they have very strong relationships with their parents, even though they are the least likely to be doing well in school. Latino boys, in particular, are least likely to consult parents about postsecondary decisions. Thus, there is an interesting paradox that the students with the worst parental relationships are the most likely to do well academically, while those with the best relationships are at the greatest risk in the early grades. As they get older, their relations with parents begin to look more like those of other groups, although the pressure to engage in risky behavior, and the continuing decline in grades does not abate.
  • Asian girls are more restricted in their out-of-school behavior, and both Asian and Latina girls report feeling more restricted by their families and community with respect to adhering to acceptable behavioral codes, e.g., not engaging in premarital sex.
  • White and Asian girls have the highest aspirations and the highest grades. Boys across all ethnic groups tend to be at higher risk for school problems and limited postsecondary opportunity. Boys do considerably less homework than girls which gets reflected in their grades.
  • Across all ethnic groups, females are more likely to rely on parents for advice about postsecondary plans than are males.

Urban rural trends

  • Rural students have significantly less satisfactory relationships with parents and are less likely than urban students to spend time with family than with friends. This would suggest that urban parents and family have greater opportunity to mediate the thinking and attitudes of students. However, urban students do not report relying on parents and family members for help in thinking about future plans to any greater degree than do the rural students. In fact, rural students report that parents influence their postsecondary decisions more than urban students. Thus the effects of this greater amount of interaction may not directly bear on the process of this decisionmaking. The effects, may however, be indirect in controlling students’ exposure to other influences (both good and bad).
  • Rural students are more likely to aspire to a trade than to college; overall aspirations are lower than for urban students. Rural students as a group appear to be exposed to fewer postsecondary options than the urban students, even though they reside in a community not more than 20 minutes from a medium sized city. The daily lives of the rural students are significantly different from their urban peers. .
  • Rural white girls appear to be more protected by the environment than others —by 11th grade they see parents as more influential than urban white girls and they are more likely to be influenced by teachers. This suggests that as they mature, the context may provide more of a protective cocoon.
  • Urban students as whole report that grades are more important to them than do rural students. However, rural students report spending more time doing homework. This appears to be somewhat paradoxical.
  • Urban males and rural females report that grades are important to their friends, significantly more than do rural males or urban females. Thus, the potential influence of peers on attitudes toward achievement would appear to differ by community context.

Overall (Ethnic)Trends

  • Across all ethnic groups, Black students and Asian females have the highest aspirations. In the 12th grade, 77% of African American males contend they are going to a four year college, although their grade point averages are below a 2.0. We believe that Black students do not really believe they are going to college, but are apt to "play the game" and tell adults what they want to hear "to get them off their backs." Black students are very reluctant to share their actual feelings or beliefs with researchers. We are developing a paper on this topic that mines our data in this regard. Latinos, both male and female, have the lowest aspirations for postsecondary schooling.
  • White and Black students are most likely to consult with parents about future plans; Latinos and Asian are least likely to consult with parents. This is clearly related to immigrant status and perception that parents do not know much about the opportunities that exist in the US.
  • As might be expected, students who profess to want to go to college demonstrate much more pressure about getting good grades than students with aspirations to work after high school. School achievement is not seen as a prerequisite to getting a good job after high school.
  • Because SE Asian and Latino parents are not able to provide a great deal of advice to their children about how to prepare for postsecondary opportunities, these students, in particular, are highly dependent on others in their environment to provide this information. Few of these students ever consult a counselor, although a number of Latino students, in particular, cited the role of teachers in advising and encouraging them. However, Asian students have peers who are college-oriented and who share information and encouragement. Latinos do not. In the absence of any systematic (while some teachers may be encouraging, students often do not maintain regular contact with the same teachers over time) support from important people in their lives, Latino students fail to develop strong postsecondary education aspirations.

Implications of the Research

There are several major implications of this research that contradict the existing literature:

  • A substantial literature concludes that authoritative parenting, good communication, and "family connectedness" ( Resnick, et al., 1997; Steinberg, 1996; Baumrind, 1989) is a good predictor of decreased risk for engaging in risky behaviors by adolescents. Our data suggest that this probably differs markedly by group, and that Latinos and African American males, in particular, may maintain strong family connectedness while also engaging in risky behavior. Our data suggest that family and neighborhood resources may also be required as part of the equation.
  • A substantial research has concluded that peer influence peaks around age 14 and then subsides in strength thereafter. Our data suggest that the influence of close friends in cliques, and "crowds" (the larger friendship group that comprises the broader social circle of a student) may well diminish over time, and the intense pressure to engage in risky behavior may be reduced, but that peer pressure may continue at a high level, albeit in a different form --that of the broader reference group of peers --those individuals with whom a student may never even interact, but who represent a kind of person they aspire to be, or think they are. The reference group may continue to exert a great deal of influence on students, which is the reason that creating a culture of high expectations in schools continues to be an important goal even for 12th graders.
  • There is an emerging literature (cite) that suggests that the fear of appearing to "act white" may be overstated and that African American students, indeed, have high aspirations for school achievement and do not actively resist the idea of being a good student. Our data suggest that African American students, in particular, are disingenuous in their responses to these kinds of attitude surveys and that theory should not be built on these data. Ethnographic and interview data are far better sources of information on African American students than survey data.
  • Overall, students' educational aspirations increase each year that they are in school, and their school achievement declines each year they are in school. This is a poor match. But, there are variations in these patterns, and Latinos, in particular, depart from these linear trends in interesting ways. Our data suggest that data must be disaggregated by ethnicity to understand the aspirations and achievement of students in diverse schools.
  • Our data showed that in some cases urbanicity --whether students attended rural or urban schools (and lived in these communities)-- was more salient than ethnicity in describing aspirations and development. For example, Latino students in rural schools reported different types of pressures than those in urban schools, and rural students overall were less likely to aspire to post-secondary education that urban students, even controlling for ethnicity. Violence is a risk factor in urban environments, ignorance of opportunity is a risk factor in rural environments. Schools need to address these particular risks in their communities.
  • Peer group influences, parenting practices, and parental resources all interact to create supportive or non-supportive environments for adolescents. It is not sufficient to teach parents "parenting skills" if these are not also supported by resources that allow them to exercise appropriate options to combat negative peer influences and support more positive peer influences.

Key Products (attached in Appendix)

  • Cooper, C. & Gándara P., When Diversity Works: Bridging Families, Peers, Schools, and Communities at CREDE. Special issue of Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk. Volume 6, Nos. 1 and 2, 2001.
  • Gándara, P., Gutiérrez, D., and O'Hara, S. (2001). Planning for the future in rural and urban schools, Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk. Volume 6, Nos. 1 and 2, 2001.
  • Gibson, M. & Gándara, P. (Eds.) Peer influences on the school performance of Mexican-descent adolescents. Invitational Conference (and book project), Hayes Mansion, September 14 - 16, 2001. (The book will include chapters from two CREDE projects)
  • Gándara, P., Gutiérrez, D., William-White, L., & O'Hara, S. (in press), The changing shape of aspirations: Mexican American students and the influence of peers, family, and school on future plans. In Gibson, M. & Gándara, P. (Eds.) Peer Influences on the School Performance of Mexican-descent Adolescents. New York: Teachers College Press. Pending.
  • Gándara, P. [There was a Talking Leaves publication that came out on this project but I do not recall ever getting a copy. Could someone send that; I think it would be appropriate to list it here.]
  • William-White, L., & Gándara, P. (in preparation). Saving face: Academic achievement and African American high school students.