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, DPS and the Foundation require 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 better understand what factors influence school choice for students or families and what predicts enrollment (or lack of enrollment) in Durham Public Schools.

As a result, DPS, the 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 and the DPS Foundation that outlines research findings; a behavioral journey map for Durham families that outlines barriers and opportunities for choosing DPS; recommendations for moving forward that focus on strategies utilizing behavioral insights (such as modes, content and timing) to improve communication about DPS schools


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

Team Outputs to Date

Understanding Why Some Durham Families Choose Non-public School Options (poster by Mariel Beasley, Joseph Sherlock, Jonathan Cloughesy, Laura Schaaf, Ritik Goyal, Andrew Lee, Caroline Olsen, Gillian Samios, Nicoly Santos, Nitin Subramanian, Mingyang Zhang)


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

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

Team Leaders

  • Mariel Beasley, Social Science Research Institute
  • Joseph Sherlock, Social Science Research Institute

/graduate Team Members

  • Laura Schaaf, Public Policy Studies-AM

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Ritik Goyal
  • Andrew Lee
  • Caroline Olsen, Interdepartmental Major
  • Gillian Samios, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Nicoly Santos, Psychology (AB)
  • Nitin Subramanian
  • Mingyang Zhang, Public Policy Studies (AB)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Jonathan Cloughesy, Center for Advanced Hindsight

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Magan Gonzales-Smith, Durham Public Schools Foundation