I just made my way through Doug Harris and Matthew Larsen’s study: What Schools Do Families Want (and Why?).
It is well worth reading. The emerging data on parental choice is increasingly grounded in the new realities of the existence of functioning choice sectors.
As it happens, it’s much easier to study parental choice when you give parents choices.
The usual caveats apply: it’s one study, over one time period, in one city – so we should view this research as useful but not dispositive.
Some initial reflections below.
Why families choose schools in New Orleans – in one table
In Louisiana, SPS is the measure of academic performance. So high SPS = high test scores. Also worth noting: SPS only has a small growth component it, so high SPS tells us more about the students than the school.
Low-income families value academic performance – and other things too
Low-income families do preference academics in making school decisions, but they also care about extended day schools and free afterschool care more than higher income families (see the end of the post for the data table of preference by income for elementary / middle schools).
It is not shocking that families with less resources value such services.
It is also not shocking that wealthy families care more about things like new buildings.
Unified enrollment systems and letter grades matter
The authors’ note: “The demand for academic quality did not increase (and may have decreased) with the broad-based Parents’ Guide and other reforms, but did increase after the OneApp and school letter grades.”
Personally, I don’t think families have real choice unless they have good information and access to a user-friendly enrollment processes.
It’s great to see that once a city puts enrollment and letter grades in place, demand for academic quality increases.
Often times, when I’m consulting with cities their leaders have extravagant plans to inform parents about school quality. I generally reply: just put out letter grades. I’m glad my instincts are beginning to be confirmed by research.
The consequence of different preferences
Some initial commentators were made uncomfortable by the fact that families choose schools for different reasons, especially given that the data indicates that lower-income families are less sensitive to academic performance than wealthy families (who care less about things like free afterschool care).
In choice systems, families will make choices based on their individual circumstances, not based on the preferences of journalists, policy wonks, and academics.
Generally speaking, I think the benefits of a choice system like New Orleans (liberty to choose, competition amongst schools, increased entrepreneurship, real accountability, increased academic outcomes) outweigh risks of suboptimal decision making (and to be clear: I don’t think view considering other factors outside of academics as suboptimal).
And I do think there are certain instances when we should overrule parental choices. I support the government closing down “F” and “D” rated schools that fail to improve.
Sound regulation can protect children in the instances where their parents make disastrous choices.
A couple of closing thoughts.
In most public school systems, the differences between how wealthy and low-income families choose schools is based on their ability to buy a nice house.
Whatever flaws you see in the New Orleans choice system, if you believe that it is more equitable to assign schools based on the ability to purchase a nice house, then please a write a response to this post and show your work.
For me, the most important finding of the report is this:
After Katrina, the lowest-income families had greater access to schools with high test scores. School bus transportation systems expanded, average test scores increased across the city, and schools with higher test scores were more likely to locate near lower-income neighborhoods.
Pre-Katrina public schools zoned for the highest-income neighborhoods were 1.3 letter grades higher than schools zoned for low-income neighborhoods; the difference between the lowest- and highest-income neighborhoods dropped to just a half letter grade considering the nearest schools after Katrina.
Again: after Katrina, the lowest-income families had greater access to schools with high test scores.
This is progress.