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Academics or Safety? How Website Design Can Influence Parents' School Choices

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From buying cars to deciding where to eat out, consumers turn to the internet often for guidance on making choices. The same goes for parents as they try to choose the best school for their children—many turn to school finder or school shopping websites.

Some cities such as New Orleans and Washington even use such websites as part of a single, citywide enrollment system for all public schools, including charters.

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So how much can the layout and design of a website affect the choices parents make? Quite a bit, according to a working paper from Mathematica Policy Research

"Even seemingly mundane decisions about the order in which schools appear and whether data are presented graphically nudge parents toward one type of school or another," the researchers write.

Parents juggle a lot of often-competing considerations when picking schools. While surveys have found that many parents rank academic performance as the most important quality in a school, other studies have found that school location, safety, extracurricular activities, and existing student bodies are also important factors to parents when it comes down to decision time.

For this study, researchers with Mathematica had parents use a custom-made website for an imaginary school district. Researchers could manipulate the website to include various combinations of school information such as displaying parental satisfaction ratings for schools, giving district averages for each criterion parents were considering, increasing or decreasing the overall amount of information presented for a given school, and using A-F grades, icons, or graphics to represent school performance.

There were 3,500 parents in the study, all of whom had a household income of no more than $40,000. Participants were recruited by a market research firm to participate in the study.

One of the most influential design elements the study found was how information was sorted. When researchers changed the default sort from a school's location to academics, parents were more likely to choose a higher-performing school, even if it was further away from their hypothetical home. This was despite the fact that parents could re-sort the schools by other criteria if they wanted to.

Displaying school information on academic performance using icons instead of bar graphs or numbers also led parents to choose higher-performing schools. But there were tradeoffs. Parents better understood information when it was presented in numbers over icons, but they also reported being less satisfied with their choice.

Researchers found that including the district averages as a reference point for parents on various criterion both reduced how easy parents found the website to use as well as their satisfaction with the experience.

Displays made up of different combinations of information and presentation types made parents more likely to select different types of schools—whether it be the highest academically performing school, or the safest, which was measured by the percentage of students who had never received a suspension.

Other combinations made parents feel more satisfied with their choices or with the usability of the website.  

The researchers caution there are a couple of important caveats to the study. In the real world, parents will have information on schools they gleaned from other sources beyond the website—from social networks, advertisements, and their own research—and the stakes are also much higher. All of which means website design could have less impact outside of the experiment.

While icons and default sorting displays can push parents toward choosing, say, higher-performing schools, the bigger takeaway, the researchers said, is this: as parents are increasingly empowered to choose schools, be they district, charter, magnet, or private, website design may have a lot of influence on the choices they ultimately make, and subsequently, what types of schools succeed. This has big implications for policymakers.

And choices must be made. Other research has found that even sorting information in what would seem to be neutral formats, such as alphabetical lists, still benefits names that appear earlier in the list.

"Given this reality, decisions about how to present information about schools should be made carefully, with thoughtful attention to the nudges that might result—and the consequences for students and schools," the study said.

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