The School Choice Information Problem

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective carries my article on the school choice information problem:

“I support school choice,” some education policymakers say, “but we need to make sure parents choose good schools!” In order for parents to choose good schools, of course, they need good information. Not information from government bureaucracies—which have a long track record of measuring the wrong things and deceiving parents—but from emerging resources such as Great Schools, Global Report Card, School Grades, and more. Better information, not tighter regulation, is the best way to let parents improve school quality.

I note a remarkable reversal – the blob used to heap contempt on parents but is now rushing to position itself as allies of beleagured parents against reforms run amok; reformers, meanwhile, who used to champion parents have suddenly begun heaping contempt on parents’ capacities to make good choices for their own children:

There are several reasons for these changes. One is the collapse of the school monopoly’s credibility…

A more important reason is the greatly increased political success and attractiveness of school choice itself…This has brought school choice new allies—allies who aren’t yet completely comfortable with the idea…

It has also meant that the limitations of school choice in its current form are becoming more visible…

Parents need good information to make good choices, and the school choice movement is going to have to take an interest in pushing the existing information structures to the next level if it hopes to make more people comfortable with the idea of parents as the locus of school accountability.

As always, your thoughts and responses are welcome!

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7 Responses to The School Choice Information Problem

  1. Jason Bedrick says:

    Brilliant piece, Greg.

    You wrote:

    The information problem can’t be “solved,” least of all by technocratic state control; it is inherent to the mystery of human decision-making. But that doesn’t mean we can simply ignore it. In fact, parents do need information to make good choices. And two centuries of government monopoly have prevented the emergence of the normal processes for getting people information.

    […] By now, most parents have heard of Great Schools. They ought to have heard of the Global Report Card and School Grades. But these tools are very limited; we need more.

    The best system—which philanthropists could catalyze fairly easily if they wanted, and for a lot less money than they’re now wasting on federal education strategies—would work on a more local basis. In each major metro area, start bringing together education data experts and community leaders like pastors, activists, and businesspeople. The data experts help the community leaders understand how measurements work (and their limitations), and the community leaders identify the most important school characteristics to measure. Over time, privately run evaluation systems could emerge—similar to existing systems like Great Schools, but drawing on local knowledge and with multifaceted tools for measuring school quality.

    Yes, exactly so. As I’ve written elsewhere, I think there could (and should) be multiple systems. One could be private certifiers who are much more rigorous than the accreditors that we see now, similar to Underwriters Laboratories. Another could be private reviewers, similar to Consumer Reports. And another system could rely on user reviews, similar to Amazon or Yelp. Each will have strengths and limitations that should complement each other. And there’s certainly a great opportunity here for philanthropists to build such systems.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Thanks for the encouragement! This approach would also solve Jay’s “buckets in the ocean” problem for philanthropy; it’s something no one else can do well.

  2. No, No, No! The trick is to stay right out of the trap of “parents must make good choices.” The whole POINT of choice is being able to make choices other people do not approve of. Being able to make mistakes, evaluate the product you get, and make changes. To decide when to start, how much to buy, and when to stop. THAT’s what freedom is.
    The people who need information are not parents, who will find their way just fine, but teachers, who – in a choice system – will need to know what their peers are doing, how it’s working, and what programs, schedules, and organizational designs are selling well. Teachers are presently locked onto one frequency for information (the U-squared complex (union/university)) and will be at a loss at first to figure out how to become entrepreneurial. As such, the most important information that needs to be disseminated is the new “school” or educational service models that are popping up in places that have education savings accounts (Arizona, Florida, et al).
    Parents know what they want and what will work for their lives and their kids. Any effort to give them “information” is patronizing, and that’s been going on long enough already, thank you very much 🙂

    • allen says:

      No one needs information when there are no choices to be made. Or when choice is exclusively in the hands of others as is the case in a school district.

      That information becomes necessary when the result of choices is important. The importance of the choices teachers make becomes important as their success, or failure, impacts the quality of the education provided by their school. That isn’t the case in a school district teachers being told what to do and how but where parents select schools the choices made by teachers becomes increasingly important.

      That being the case, have a little faith.

      As teaching becomes a more valuable skill, as will inevitably happen where schools are selected by parents, the means by which teachers improve their skills becomes increasingly important. After all, you can’t have a good school without good teachers.

      There are already bags of such resources driven by no more then the pride some teachers take in doing a good job. Those resources will only swell and grow in value as teaching skill becomes a means by which schools can distinguish themselves.

  3. Actually I do have faith that teachers will find different ways to provide better service (and better service models than just schools) because as I said, in some states where they can, they already are.

    My response is primarily aimed at the assertion that parents must make “good” choices. Why should they? The people in school systems who have been making educational decisions about children for generations have not been making good choices. So why, when the power is finally handed back to parents where it belongs, does it come with the stipulation that their decisions must be “good?”

    If people feel the need to provide information, by all means provide it and it will no doubt serve some purpose, but even with all the information in the world before them, a parent does not have to make the decision that the world considers “good.”

    The decision should be right for that moment in that family’s life, given whatever constraints and opportunities at that moment face that family. As long as the parent is not doing harm to the child, and is not enabling someone else to harm them, no one else needs to agree with that decision and the right to judge has a very limited scope. Furthermore, decisions are not permanent, and the right to make changes is inherent in the right to choose.

    Kids have in any case a way better chance that their parents will make good decisions than they have ever had that education functionaries will do so.

  4. Tunya Audain says:

    Parents, Education Choices & Information

    1 Right now, Nevada is the dynamic to watch. How the promise of universal choice via their yet-to-be-implemented ESA (Education Savings Plan) plays out is gripping. Can we get some behind the scenes reports?

    2 Yes, with the spread of actual models of choice plus the buzz around the idea, it is great that people are looking for ways to assist the process and inform parents of the opportunities.

    3 What is key to understand is that, in full gear as NV projects, we won’t be looking at “good schools” and “good choices” as such but “preferences” and good fit and unbundling of school services. Example: Specialized private tutoring for a dyslexic boy who is enrolled half day in a public hockey academy (my grandson).

    4 It is parents themselves who start helplines re how-to negotiate and customize, alternative choices available, positive/negative reviews of products and services.

    5 Education entrepreneurs see opportunities and behave accordingly. When we in BC (Canada) had an extended teacher strike and the government provided $40 day to parents of primary-aged students it didn’t take long for new tutoring services, parent-organized co-ops and posters on telephone poles to suddenly appear.

    6 This has all been foretold by Ivan Illich (Deschooling, 1971) with his skill exchanges, peer-matching, learning webs and directories of educators-at-large. To some extent this is already in place in some areas in the home education communities.

    7 The hype and buzz is already out for Nikhil Goyal’s forthcoming (Feb 2016) book — Schools on Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice. “He prescribes an inspiring educational future that is thoroughly democratic and experiential, and one that utilizes the entire community as a classroom.”

    8 YES, I think parents will be eager for good information once public funding truly follows the student; and parents are able to choose and mix and match as they see fit. NO, the community organizing style as proposed by Greg Foster is not encouraging — too expensive, too long, too typically bureaucratic and not loose, flexible and freedom-oriented. BUT, there would be a need, I think, for standards assessments especially concerning proof of proper methodologies and skills acquisition (e.g., reading, mathematics, science).

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