Using Behavioral Science to Understand Why Some Durham Families Choose Non-public School Options (2019-2020)


In the last decade in North Carolina, the narrative about public education has become increasingly negative. Evidence suggests that public confidence in public schools is declining. More parents are choosing to send their children to private schools or charters, or opt for home schooling. This trend is seen most acutely in Durham, where 70% of school-aged children enroll in Durham Public Schools (DPS), compared to 80% of families in the state and about 90% of families nationwide.

As a result, fewer resources go to support students in DPS, and Durham’s schools are increasingly segregated by race and socioeconomic status. The DPS Foundation launched in 2018 with a primary aim of improving public confidence and engagement with DPS. To develop a long-term strategy, the Foundation requires a better understanding of how Durham families are making decisions about where to enroll their children.

Project Description

This Bass Connections project will use behavioral science to understand how Durham families are making decisions about school enrollment. The project team will map the points in a child’s education when families make school choices, the types of information they use and the people and networks that serves as sources of information.

Team members will conduct interviews with Durham parents to determine their decision-making points along the continuum of the child’s educational experience, and gather data from families to learn about the factors and sources of information that influenced their decision-making regarding their child’s school.

Team members will also utilize data from DPS to determine school enrollment patterns, and examine themes and attempt to determine if there are differences based on race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, students’ learning differences or other aspects of the students or families that influence school choices.

As a result, the DPS Foundation and community stakeholders will better understand the types of information and experiences that influence families’ school decisions in Durham, and identify strategies to provide families with information, experiences and access related to their school that could positively influence their decision to consider public school options.

Anticipated Outputs

Comprehensive behavioral diagnosis report for DPS Foundation that outlines research findings and recommendations for moving forward; online dashboard and app that provides Durham residents with accessible and holistic information about DPS schools; toolkit for DPS schools to use for parent engagement and school tours; materials for Durham realtors to share information about DPS with prospective home buyers

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this team will include 2 undergraduates and 2 graduate students from Social Psychology, Cognitive Psychology, Economics, Public Policy, Statistics, Process Engineering, Sociology or Anthropology. Desired skills include qualitative data collection and analysis, data analysis on large datasets and panel data as well as nonacademic writing. Any students who have attended public, private or charter schools in Durham would be beneficial, as well as any students with connections to private or charter schools in Durham. 

The team will hold weekly, in-person meetings on Fridays from 2:00-3:00 p.m., and video calls when in-person meetings are not possible. Additionally, there will be weekly team emails that summarize the work completed in the prior week and the tasks for the upcoming week.

The two graduate students will each take on a management role for different parts of the project: 1) data analysis on data from DPS; and 2) qualitative data collection from parents and students. All team members will participate in all aspects of the projects, but roles will vary by expertise and desired learning for students.

Students will enhance their data analytics skills, learn how to interview participants, design and conduct surveys and experience the application of research on real-world policy challenges. Graduate students will have greater responsibility and management within the project, which will further their leadership experience and better prepare them to enter the workforce in a management position.

There is an optional component in Summer 2019 for students who have strong qualitative and quantitative data analysis skills. Students would work for approximately four weeks, 10-20 hours per week; summer dates are flexible.


Summer 2019 – Spring 2020

  • Summer 2019 (Optional): Team-building; literature review; IRB submission; instrument(s) design; round 1 interviews and surveys; data analysis plan; data collection
  • Fall 2019: Team-building; literature review; round 1 interviews and surveys; mid synthesis report; modification of instruments; data collection and analysis; behavioral map
  • Spring 2020: Team-building; round 2 interviews and surveys; final synthesis report; data collection and analysis; data analysis report; final report


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available


Image: Durham County Public Schools (DPS 2018 Convocation), by Strawbridge Partners, public domain 

Durham County Public Schools (DPS 2018 Convocation), by Strawbridge Partners.

/faculty/staff Team Members

  • Mariel Beasley, Social Science Research Institute*
  • Jonathan Cloughesy, Center for Advanced Hindsight
  • Joseph Sherlock, Social Science Research Institute*

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Magan Gonzales-Smith, Durham Public Schools Foundation