When Choosing Schools, Parents Often Pick Close-to-Home Over Test Scores

School choice is framed on the idea that if our society provides parents with enough choices, they will select the schools said to be excellent and their choices will drive up the academic quality of all schools because schools will compete to achieve excellence in order to be chosen by consumers.  The mark of excellence for which parents are assumed to compete these days is the school’s rating as defined by standardized test scores.

Last fall, however, some of the most prominent proponents of school choice as the driver of school quality began to express some skepticism.  Maybe marketplace school choice that has been so rapidly expanded across America’s big cities isn’t working the way it was supposed to.

First Robin Lake, executive director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington—creator of the “portfolio school reform model” that purports to deliver a good choice of school for every child in all neighborhoods—and that encourages city school districts to launch charter schools and expand school choice—went to Detroit. In early November, Lake and the Center for Reinventing Public Education published a scathing analysis in Education Next:  “No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

Then in mid-December Margaret Raymond, a fellow at the pro-market Hoover Institution and director of the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) shocked listeners at the Cleveland City Club by announcing that it has become pretty clear that markets don’t work in what she calls the education sector: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”

Now in January we have two new academic reports that suggest one primary reason why school choice does not seem to be driving up school quality as measured by standardized test scores. Parents are more discerning than anyone expected, and they are looking at other factors besides a school’s test score ranking when they choose a school for their children.  (One can, of course, explore a whole range of other possible reasons why competition doesn’t work—including whether schools can control the factors that drive test scores and whether uneven financial support for schools limits any real capacity for competition.)

In a major new study, the Consortium on Chicago School Research reports that when Chicago closed nearly 50 schools in 2013, children were assigned to a “welcoming” school, but families could make another choice if they wished.  Of the families who opted out of their assigned “welcoming” school, some parents chose schools with higher test scores, but many chose lower rated schools.  Why?  “Overwhelmingly, families that enrolled in lower-rated CPS schools did so because of proximity to home… Although these parents also talked about wanting schools that met their children’s academic needs, distance was prioritized over other considerations—oftentimes because of safety concerns.” “Access to transportation and the cost of transportation to and from welcoming schools was prohibitive for many of the families.”

The Chicago researchers list several other factors that influenced parents as well: “Some parents relied on their social networks for information…. A few families had prior experiences with school staff or students and either strongly considered or ruled out schools based on these prior experiences… Simply knowing about a school through a personal or family connection often put that school into consideration… Some children needed very specific kinds of supports or programs that were not offered at every school…. Families with multiple children had more complicated choice sets because these families often prioritized keeping their children together…. Some parents wanted their children to move to a more racially diverse school because they wanted their children to be exposed to multiple cultures.  Others ruled out some schools if they believed their child would be in the racial minority… Parents not only wanted their children to have a safe commute to and from school, but they also wanted them to feel safe while at school.”

The Chicago researchers conclude: “Academic quality for these families meant anything from schools having after-school programs, to having certain curricula and courses, small class sizes, and one-on-one attention from teachers in classes.  In addition, several parents stressed the importance of enrolling their children into schools that were not overcrowded… Many of these same parents expressed concern over larger class sizes at the welcoming schools and wondered whether their children would be able to get what they needed from their teachers.”

In another study released this month, Douglas Harris and Matthew Larsen at Tulane University examine the reasons parents choose schools in New Orleans, a district where school choice among charter schools has become almost universal because the school district has undergone massive charterization since the hurricane in the fall of 2005.   The school’s published academic rating is one of the factors parents consider but not the only factor: “Distance from home to school, academic performance of schools, and extracurricular activities predict school choices at all grade levels  Also, even after controlling for other school differences, families typically prefer schools that have ‘legacy’ names that were used pre-Katrina.  For families of children going to elementary schools, practical considerations such as distance and availability of extended school days and after-care seem especially important… For families with children going to high schools, extracurricular activities such as band and football seem especially important.” Factors that discouraged families from applying to particular schools include longer driving distances and a longer school year.

What these reports document is that parents are considering the needs of their children through the lens of a far more complex set of factors than mere test score rankings.  Parents are valuing and carefully considering a range of factors that will affect their family life and the needs of their children. One must wonder, considering that distance from home and transportation problems seem to be the biggest issues for parents in Chicago and New Orleans, whether our society needs to take another look at the importance of investing in and improving the neighborhood public schools that parents seem to value.

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