One of the Pitfalls of School Choice: Providing Misinformation

One problem with school choice–the idea that giving parents the ability to choose schools would cause ‘bad’ schools to close, as if there were some sort of marketplace–is that those who need better schools the most often choose schools based on criteria other than ‘performance.’ This is a selection criterion problem: low-income parents do not evaluate schools in the same way middle-class parents do.

Mark Weber, discussing some analysis by Bruce Baker, notes another problem with the school choice model (boldface mine):

I turn now to the third component of One Newark: school “choice.” The One Newark plan called for students and families to choose their schools from a menu of charter and district schools, using a single application. I won’t recount the many problems with this application system – nor the subsequent staffing, transportation, and logistical problems – as those have been well reported in the press.

I will, however, refer to a classic economics paper from George Akerlof titled “The Market for ‘Lemons’: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism.” Akerlof used the used car market to explain that a consumer model only works when there is adequate and impartial information available to consumers. Without this information, consumers are not only likely to fall victim to unscrupulous providers; providers of quality goods are less likely to enter the market.

A market system of choice for schools, then, requires that families have high-quality information about the schools they are choosing. NPS attempted to provide that information on the One Newark application, labeling schools at three different tiers. “Falling Behind” schools are those that allegedly lag in student outcomes. “On the Move” schools are supposedly improving in their performance; “Great” schools supposedly serve their student well.

Here’s the problem with the implementation in Newark, NJ:

When you factor in demographics, one quarter of the “Great” schools do worse than expected, while one third of the “Falling Behind” schools do better than expected; most of the “One the Move” schools do worse than expected.

Leaving aside the selection criterion problem, if the district can’t provide an accurate assessment of how schools perform, there’s no way parents can make a good choice.

Once again, the reality of ‘reform’ collides with the rhetoric.

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1 Response to One of the Pitfalls of School Choice: Providing Misinformation

  1. Dave S says:

    Another 2 factors in choosing schools for people of low-income are location relative to home and location relative to siblings’ schools. These factors are much more pronounced for lower-income families because lower-income families are more likely to be single-parent and not own a car. Not owning a car means that the family faces pressure to keep their kids close to home to minimize transportation hassles (especially in the younger years when the parent needs to take their kid to school) or keep their kids close to each other (so the older kids can “watch after” the younger ones freeing the parent to work or do errands). And as we all know, schools located in lower-income areas tend to correlate highly with lower test scores and other “objective” measurements of school quality.

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