Thursday, May 24, 2007

How Parents Choose Schools

Andrew Coulson thinks that this study out of Georgetown "finds that families (overwhelmingly low-income and African-American) participating in D.C.’s school voucher program are making rational, informed choices and are becoming more astute consumers the longer they participate in the program."

In reality, the results are somewhat underwhelming. Certainly, there is a high level of parent satisfaction with the program, and the program's retention rate is at 90%. But education isn't about parental satisfaction, it's about helping children. Coulson, like many libertarian and school choice types, assumes blithely that families are making well-informed decisions, an assumption for which the evidence is rather thin.

For example, in DC, what criteria are parents using to make their school placement decisions? There's a table in the report I'll summarize:

Class SizeAll families
International/Global FocusSmall number
LocationSmall number
Rigorous AcademicsMost families
Religious/Moral CurriculumSmall number
SafetyAll families
School Directory/BrochureAll families
School VisitsAll families
Student InputSmall number
Test ResultsA very small number
Word Of MouthA very small number

That's not terribly encouraging. The criteria that are probably most important - the ones that best indicate the added educational value of attending the school - are given relatively little weight. The closest parents come to looking for specific educational outcomes is with the "rigorous academics" thing, but as long as that's divorced from test results, it's not clear what the content of that requirement really is. (I think the other under-weighted criterion is word of mouth.)

At the same time, families are giving far too much consideration to things like the school brochure - essentially a commercial for the school. And then there's class size, which was important to all of the participating families. A few years ago, Coulson's Cato-buddy Dominick Armentano explained that class size isn't actually important:
Most of the public policy world is ruled by warm and fuzzy myths. Take the important issue of class size and student achievement. Florida is in the process of mandating smaller class size on the assumption, presumably, that students will learn more in smaller classes with more teacher attention. Sounds good, but is it generally true?

There have been close to 300 separate studies nation-wide on the relationship between class size and student achievement. Professor Eric Hanushek, an economist at the University of Rochester, reviewed these studies and discovered that only 15% of them suggest that reducing class size improves student learning as measured by standardized tests. Indeed, in 72% of the studies reviewed, there was no statistically significant effect on measurable student achievement associated with smaller classes. Even more surprisingly, in 13% of the studies reviewed, student test scores actually declined as class size was reduced. In sum, a full 85% of all of the studies on class size and student achievement found that reducing class size did not improve student performance.
This really points at the crux of the school choice issue for libertarians. When the government makes poor decisions about educational policy, this is viewed as a shortcoming of the system. For private schools, the libertarian standard is different: the very same poor decisions, when made by private actors, are features of the system to be applauded, rather than regrettable bugs.

It could very well be that the DC voucher program will promote improved student achievement. The folks at Cato, though, clearly do not care about student achievement in any fundamental way. What matters to them is choice as such. Unfortunately, they go so far as to conflate customer satisfaction with quality of outcome. That's a pity, because I think choice is an important element in school reform. I just try not to mistake it for an end in itself.

The big lesson that we should take away from the Georgetown report is that families are very clearly invested in finding quality educational settings for their children, and that investment should be leveraged. But families also apparently make these decisions on the basis of the information that is most readily available to them - paid advertisements, class size statistics, etc. The problem is that the most easily-observable features of a school often do not correlate strongly with school quality (measured in terms of educational outcomes.) The trick is defining standards by which schools can be measured and presenting those measurements in a way that is useful for parents as they make choices for their students.


Lisa said...

I'm curious about two things in that study:
First, did the study control for or otherwise examine the effect of income level on achievement and class size? In other words, might low-income students benefit from smaller class sizes where others did not? A lot of charter schools in Oakland are gambling on this very idea.

Second, I noticed that they measured achievement based on standardized tests. I know, I know, NCLB has to make everything all quantifiable, but I'd be curious to know if small class size could lead to achievement if measured under different criteria, such as portfolio, written exam, or college acceptance.

Paul said...

The only thing that meta-analysis says about income is that if you use the black/white gap as a stand-in for income, even though that gap has diminished as class sizes have decreased, it doesn't look like those two trends are causally related.

It also does mention some other criteria - like future earnings - but none of ones you mention, I don't think.

As for Oakland, how many of those schools are gambling on smaller class sizes, and how many are just gambling on smaller schools? My understanding of the research is that the latter definitely have some benefits in terms of things like drop-out rates (at the cost of certain course offerings.)

Plus, as I was talking to somebody about at lunch today, teachers almost always prefer smaller class sizes, so as a policy it could always be defended as labor-oriented rather than student-oriented.