Friday, January 12, 2007

Why School Choice isn't the End All

Minding the (Achievement) Gap:

"One of the series that created the most ripples was 'Inside Choice Schools,' a seven-part report in 2005, fifteen years after Milwaukee launched the voucher program, detailing students' experiences at voucher-supported schools. Borsuk and fellow reporters visited all but 9 of the 115 voucher-supported schools at the time -- all that would allow them in -- and described what they saw. The schools ranged from excellent, he recalls, to 'startlingly bad,' such as one Christian school in a dimly lit church basement without classroom walls or any clear curriculum. Through interviews, the reporters found that Milwaukee parents generally want a school with a cozy feel and value this intimacy over teacher credentials. Borsuk wrote (with colleague Sarah Carr), 'Parental choice by itself does not assure quality. Some parents pick bad schools -- and keep their children in them long after it is clear the schools are failing.'" (emphasis mine)

Unlike many school reform advocates, I am not totally convinced by "vouchers" as a solution to our education problem. While I agree that competition on a wide scale level does have an overall positive affect on the quality of products that people buy, on smaller scale, when it comes to individual services or goods people can make some surprisingly poor choices.

Unfortunately, because education deals with peoples children, parent's are often to emotionally attached, to close to the situation, to make rational decisions. Just as people make poor choices to get themselves deep in debt to buy flashy cars or the "right" clothes, people don't make decisions about their children's education based on quantitative measures.

Part of the problem may be that their is no good easily to find, widely published information on how well any school or school district performs. Instead parents rely on subjective feelings to judge schools. Do they like the teachers? Is the play ground well kept? Do they use lots of cool edubabble?

Witness the success of good charter school systems like KIPP or Achievement First. You would think that parent's would be rioting to get their kids in the schools or demanding that their public schools adopt the same policies. Yes there are waiting lists, but there is no where near the urgency that you would expect.

Imagine if a new cell phone provider came out and was able to offer better call quality, state of the art phones, double the minutes, at half the cost of your current one. People would be dropping their current service in droves and scrambling to get on the new plan.

When I first moved to Sumter, South Carolina the general census was (and still is) that Sumter High School was way better than rural Crestwood High School. Sumter High School had all the town money, it has the good football team, great buildings, and most importantly it was 55% white vs 43% white at Crestwood.

But... if you are savvy enough to look find the the school report cards, you find something different. I compiled this table based on Sumter HS and Crestwood HS 2006 school report cards.

As you can see, on almost every category, Crestwood HS kicks Sumter HS's ass. In the two categories that Sumter HS has the edge, its only by the slimest of margins.

You would think that parents who attend kids attend school at Sumter HS, especially black parents, would be raising hell, but no! 80% of parents who attend Sumter HS are happy with the learning environment, whereas at Crestwood HS only 44% are.

It's numbers like these that depress me. A rural, mostly minority school can provide a better education that the city mostly white school, and yet the perception is exactly the opposite.

This doesn't mean that school choice is a bad thing. There are some parents who are smart enough to make educated decisions. Eventually market forces will have a positive affect. Even if the parents don't see the differences, the school administrators will learn from each other.

I have always been an optimist, and I am convinced if school reform advocates continue to yell loud enough that eventually our country can at least come closer to having the education system that it deserves.

(cross posted at Kitchen Table Math, the Sequel)


Jetgirl said...


You make a sound argument, but I can't help but point out one bit:

Yes, parents may make undesirable choices, but will the government make better ones?

I think the ability to have a choice is more important than making sure people make the 'correct' choice.