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| American Enterprise Institute
Today more than ever, school choice is a centerpiece of American school reform efforts. Policies enabling families to choose from an assortment of charter, private, magnet, and traditional public schools are plentiful in the United States, with advocates describing these policies as a pathway to—and sometimes even a panacea for—school improvement.
A common argument for school choice policies appeals to the potential efficiencies that derive from market-based choices. The essential argument goes like this: Most parents profoundly love and know their own children, which provides parents with a strong desire and ability to find schools that are good for their children. In general, parents should choose high-quality schools that suit their children well so when schools are subjected to market pressures, schools must either offer sufficiently high-quality, desirable programs or succumb to low enrollment.
Unfortunately, getting school choice to work as intended is not quite so simple. There are many ways in which increasing school choice could fail to have its desired effects. For example, if a child cannot get to a school because of transportation hurdles, his or her family could have fewer choices. If a school lacks the autonomy to offer an educational program distinct
from nearby schools, then families might have “choices” that are not all that different from one another.
Perhaps the greatest obstacles to fulfilling the promise of school choice, however, are the school choosers themselves. Choosing a school for a child is difficult. Questions about what schools should do and how we should assess performance can perplex education researchers, reformers, and policymakers. Yet the market-based logic for school choice relies on school choosers to answer these questions sensibly, even though many choosers have limited information about schools, limited training in conducting a school search, and limited resources to commit to the process. If few school choosers are up to this task, then school choice markets might not produce their hypothesized benefits.
Today, many governments and third-party organizations offer support to school-choosing families by providing the public with information about schools and helping families navigate their options. A recent proliferation of school performance data—sparked by test-based accountability and a broader societal embrace of data-driven decision making—has supplemented these efforts. School “report cards” and online parent reviews, for example, are cornerstones of today’s information-dissemination efforts, despite each being largely a 21st-century phenomenon.
These dissemination efforts are fraught with challenges. Creating high-quality, reasonable measures of school performance—which is not the focus of this paper—is certainly not the least of them. Yet even if we were somehow equipped with perfect metrics, the work of informing school choosers would be far from complete, because providing the public with information and ensuring that the public is truly informed are not one and the same.
Even a hypothetically ideal school report card will only have its desired effect insofar as people obtain, interpret, and appropriately use the information they derive from it. And unfortunately, people are flawed as information consumers and decision makers. Our cognitive abilities are limited, we are vulnerable to a wide range of biases, and we have only so much time and effort to invest in school searches.
In this paper, I describe how successfully informing the school-choosing public requires understanding which information best describes school quality and how people interpret information and utilize it as they make decisions. I provide theory on how people make decisions, before discussing what school-choosing families desire in schools, where they go for information, how information affects their attitudes and behaviors, and how adults and children might respond differently to the same information. I conclude with implications for the design and dissemination of school profiles and performance reports.
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