Examining “choice” : identifying STEM course-offerings and course-taking patterns in charter and non-charter public schools through social network analysis and community detection

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David, Bernard George

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Public charter schools and other market-based reforms in education are heralded by proponents of school choice as efforts that empower families to make decisions about their students’ education that are specifically tailored to their students’ individual needs. Charter schools, in particular, have been positioned by political proponents as a key component of reform efforts striving to expand school choice for families. As proponents have argued, families dissatisfied with local non-charter schools deemed underperforming can elect to enroll their students in charter schools, which are purported to have the flexibility to experiment with novel, innovative instructional models outside the constraints of the traditional public education system. Given the political momentum supporting the expansion of charter schools in the United States, it is important to understand the programmatic differences between charter and non-charter schools. More specifically, characterizing programmatic differences between charter and non-charter schools will give researchers insight into whether or not students enrolling in different types of schools have expanded or limited course options. Toward that end, this works draws upon methods from physics—specifically community detection in network data—to: 1) explore differences in STEM course offering between public charter and non-charter secondary schools in Texas; and 2) characterize the similarities and differences in student STEM course-taking patterns between Texas charter and non-charter secondary schools. As an extension of these broader research aims, this thesis seeks specifically to investigate how emergent tracks (as determined by prominent course-taking patterns within schools) within Texas charter and non-charter schools serve to either promote or constrain student access to STEM disciplines.



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