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Curmudgucation: How Parents Choose

The ideal version of how school choice is supposed to work, the happy picture portrayed by charter-choice advocates, is that parents will search their available options, consider the salient characteristics of academic achievement, and select the best-performing schools. Charters that perform poorly will, the theory goes, be driven out of business because their lousy test scores will make them an undesirable "product" that will not be able to grab enough "customers."

The high-performing schools will rise to the top of the marketplace, and the duds will descend and drop.

It's a nice picture, but now we have research that suggests it's just a dream.

The National Bureau of Economic Research has published the working paper "Do Parents Value School Effectiveness," by researchers Atila Abdulkadiroglu (MIT), Parag A. Pathak (MIT)Jonathan Schellenberg (UC Berkeley), and Christopher R. Walters (UC at Berkeley).

We could draw this out, but the researchers are pretty clear about their findings.

We find no relationship between preferences and school effectiveness after controlling for peer quality. 

Is this the table with the high PARCC scores?


The study looked at New York City high school assignments, so it may or may not be representative of how things work in other locales. But how it works in NYC is that parents want to send their students to the schools with the smart kids. Or to put it another, non-researchy way, everyone wants to sit at the cool table in the cafeteria, regardless of what food is being served there or how convenient it is to the lunch line.

Not a shocker. Marketers have long understood that you can sell a product by emphasizing all sorts of traits other than the products actual level of quality. Take, for example, earbuds, which are all virtually the same product, but are marketed a variety of ways including the more expensive brands that are used by the cool artists.

I'll also take this as a good sign that parents are by and large smart enough not to be fooled by the notion that test scores on the Big Standardized Test are somehow a useful proxy for actual school quality. Parents, it turns out, are not saying, "Which school has the highest BS Test results-- that's where I want my child to go!" Nice to know the market may be smarter than that.

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. ...