Why Low-Income Parents Rationally Choose Failing Schools

This paper is few years old (pdf), but it asks a very important question: why do the overwhelming majority of parents with children in failing schools (which, of course, might not be a property of the school, but the student body) leave their kids in those schools even when they have other options (e.g., school choice programs). Since one of the common proposals of education reform is to allow parents to choose schools, if parents are choosing to stick with failing schools, this finding puts the kabosh on that idea.

In the study, the authors interviewed 48 parents from a single MidWestern town, ‘Weldon’, who had recently had the option to move their children to other schools after they graduated from elementary (6th grade) or junior high school (8th grade). The parents had a range of schools: neighborhood pubic, magnet public, charter public, secular private, and non-secular private schools.

What’s interesting is that there was no significant difference (although there could be a weak power of test issue*) in what factors parents from low-income and middle-class households used to decide what school their child should attend. Nonetheless, there was a significant income effect on what schools ultimately were chosen:

These similar processes resulted in the selection of different types of schools. Fifty-three percent of middle-class parents chose a non-failing school as compared with 36% of poor and working-class parents. Middle-class parents chose selective (74%) and tuition-based (43%) schools at higher rates than poor and working-class parents (24% chose selective and 24% chose tuition-based schools)

So if parents, regardless of income level, are using roughly the same criteria for assessing schools, why do the outcomes differ?

The authors argue that three factors account for the different outcomes:

1) Social networks. The strongest factor–one used by almost all parents–was speaking to other parents who had children enrolled in a particular school. Low-income parents simply didn’t know other parents whose children attended successful schools, and thus, were less likely to choose those schools.

2) Customary attendance patterns. Parents stick with what’s known. Even if the ‘usual’ school has problems, they could assess those known problems, whereas a non-custom choice (e.g., switching to a private school) carried unknown risks. Parents also did not want to shred their children’s existing friendships. The authors note, “many parents articulated the belief that a child who has no friends or a child who does not feel comfortable in school can easily turn into a child who does not want to go to school and a child who does not do well academically.” Either way, as you might expect, the ‘usual’ track for low-income families is more likely to result in attending a failing school.

3) Children’s academic success. The implicit assumption made in favor of school choice programs is that parents will always choice the ‘best’ school. But parents did not necessarily think sending a poorly performing child to a high-performance school, especially if it required tuition (i.e., private schools), would be effective. Some parents thought that their child’s problems were motivational, and that wouldn’t be fixed by a change in school. Others feared that a more challenging school would make their child feel even more left behind (and, of course, some parents with poorly performing kids didn’t think their children would be accepted into the school). Again, lower-income parents typically thought their kids weren’t performing well. For instance, they were more likely to report that their kids received poor grades than were middle-class parents.

The authors conclude (boldface mine):

Reformers assert that choice is a great equalizer. Schooling markets are seen as open, unbiased, fair. If we simply give parents choice they will select the best school from the set that exists. But this simple portrayal of choice and choice markets obscures much of what marketing and advertising specialists have known for years. We don’t all choose from the same set of goods. When purchasing a car, some Americans choose between a Lexus and a BMW, others choose between a Saturn and a Ford. Everyone is free to choose, but consumers’ choice sets differ dramatically.

The same is true of school choice. Parents’ choices are not the unbounded, free-will, anyschool- you-desire, kind of choices that free market advocates suggest. Contextual factors, factors that are directly linked to the current distribution of educational opportunities, shape parents’ choice sets. Those factors do not give parents of different social-class backgrounds equal contact with non-failing, selective, and tuition-based schools. This study suggests that choice sets are actual markets from which parents choose schools. If researchers hope to understand why parents choose the schools they do, we must shift our focus away from the market that exists on paper toward the “markets” from which parents select, their choice sets.

To put it bluntly, it’s the natural history, stupid.

Fixing this, of course, would require an open and frank discussion of class. And economic classes, as we all know, don’t exist in the U.S. Or something.

*In fairness, you try conducting interviews with 48 complete strangers. About their children. Sociology is hard. Gimme a BL3 pathogen any day…

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3 Responses to Why Low-Income Parents Rationally Choose Failing Schools

  1. Why don’t lower income parents “shop better”? Thismakes some generally unwarranted presuppositions. Such as … low-income parents can’t move to rich neighborhoods; they can’t “shop” for schools in the first place. For the particular parents of the study, I suppose the factors mentioned are an issue in that particular case, but, in most cases, when your kid moves from elementary to junior high, they’re still in a particular attendance zone and can’t move to a better performing junior high. So, my original rhetorical questions are likely far more important than the study linked here.

  2. SG,

    The study specifically dealt with parents who could choose–it wasn’t making claims about how much choice exists.

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