This paper addresses two of secondary education’s most serious problems—peer abuse of weaker socially unskilled students and a peer culture that in most schools discourages many students from trying to be all that they can be academically. We have documented the two problems by reviewing ethnographies of secondary schools, by interviewing students in eight suburban high schools and by analyzing data from questionnaires completed by nearly 100,000 students at Educational Excellence Alliance schools. Grounded in these observations, we built a simple mathematical model of peer harassment and popularity and of the pressures for conformity that are created by the struggle for popularity and then tested it in data from the Educational Excellence Alliance.
Students entering middle school learn its norms by trying to copy the traits and behaviors of students who are respected and by avoiding contact with those who are frequently harassed. Peer norms are enforced by encouraging ‘wannabes,’ aspirants for admission to popular crowds, to harass those who visibly violate them. Consequently, one can infer the norms by noting who gets harassed and who doesn’t. Traits that in EEA data led to higher risks of being bullied and harassed were: being in a special education, being in gifted programs, taking accelerated courses in middle school, tutoring other students, enjoying school assignments, taking a theatre course, not liking rap-hip hop music and liking instead musicals, heavy metal, country, or classical music. The relationship between harassment and academic effort was curvilinear; both the nerds and the slackers were harassed. To some degree these norms are, as Kenneth Arrow suggests, trying to internalize externalities. But why are music preferences such good predictors of harassment? Why are the student tutors victimized? We propose that norms also have a “We’re cool, Honor us” function of legitimating the high status that the leading crowds claim for themselves. As a result the traits and interests that members of leading crowds have in common tend to become normative for everyone. The norms that prevailed were: “Spend your time socializing, do not “study too hard.” Value classmates for their athletic prowess and their attractiveness, not their interest in history or their accomplishments in science.”