How parents use school choice options

How parents use school choice options

(District of Columbia) As a growing number of families nationally take advantage of school choice options, new research suggests more needs to be done to help parents make the critical decisions about where to send their children.

Once a highly controversial proposal, the notion that students attending a failing school should be allowed to transfer to a higher performance site has in recent years become almost universally accepted.

Some urban school districts – including Washington D.C. and post-Katrina New Orleans – now have a majority of their K-12 students attending schools of choice. Although it was pushed into law by the Bush administration, President Barack Obama has defended the right and legislation in several states, including California, have expanded it.

But a paper released earlier this month by the American Enterprise Institute, argues that government agencies and third party stakeholders need to do a better job of disseminating the right information about the school options. That is, even when a jurisdiction can offer a variety of high-performing schools and charters – too often parents are not in possession of the facts needed to make the best choice.

“No matter how plentiful or how good one city’s charter schools might be, if parents do not know about them or lack the time and resources to make an informed decision about which school is best for their child, then school choice policies will do little to improve student outcomes,” wrote Jon Valant, author of the report.

“In other words, it is time for reformers and policymakers to pay as much attention to the demand side of school choice as they have to the supply of good schools,” said Valant, a postdoctoral  fellow in the Department of Economics at Tulane University and the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans.

Currently, school districts and state educational agencies provide a mix of details about a school to support parents considering a transfer. School report cards are perhaps the most visible example.

Valant notes that while parents often say academics is the primary issue when it comes to choosing a school – other factors are also important such as a school’s distance from home, programs that might be available – even racial demographics.

He argues that because the A-to-F report card is the dominate tool offered to families, most make the decision solely on that one measure which is generally dominated by test scores.

“Providing school-choosing families with school performance reports could lead those families to align their criteria with the information available in the reports,” he writes. “For example, a formal school performance report emphasizing state test results might signal to families that this is a useful indicator of school quality.”

Valant said there’s an assumption that consumers are “rational actors” when perfectly informed about their options, but in real life people are “boundedly” rational – meaning that they are limited by the information they can collect.

When it comes to choosing a school, he said, the research shows parents will use the A-F letter grades as a starting point but will look for other resources as well – especially what other parents might say.

Based on experiments the team conducted in Milwaukee; Philadelphia; and Washington, D.C., the research team found that parents who receive more information about school performance often align their beliefs about school quality based on the information received.

The reports suggest that government agencies and other stakeholders interested in helping parents make informed decisions should tailor their accountability reports to include information that is accessible and clear, while not sacrificing reliability.

“Often, this involves tradeoffs: being accurate might mean providing more information, but this comes at the cost of accessibility,” they said. “One solution: progressive disclosure, which first presents the consumer with basic information and then subsequent opportunities for more specialized details. This strategy encourages leading with basic school information such as location, grade levels, and an academic rating and then expanding to include more information on class offerings and student outcomes.”

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