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Parents Need a Reason to Dig Into School Quality Data, Study Finds

It's not enough for parents to have access to data on school quality; they need an explicit reason to start comparing schools to make use of that information, finds a study released this morning in Education Next.

New school options, be they from a move, a charter school opening, or the No Child Left Behind Act's public school transfer program, spurred parent activity on the school-ratings website, GreatSchools.org, the study found. Michael Lovenheim, an associate professor of policy analysis at Cornell University, and Patrick Walsh, an associate professor of economics at St. Michael's College, tracked more than 102 million keyword searches on the site. They were able to match searches to school districts in 39 states and track the ebb and flow of searching activity in each community from 2010 to 2013.

Click for more coverage of parent engagement in schools.

Monthly activity on the site rose significantly during that time, from less than 1,000 in January 2010 to more than 600,000 in October 2013; Lovenheim and Walsh then compared local search activity to the national averages during that time, while also taking into account the percentage of new families with school-age children who moved to the communities.

Those years were at the tail end of No Child Left Behind, when some states were still implementing the law's requirement that poor-performing schools allow their students to transfer to higher-achieving schools--but some states received waivers from those requirements.

The researchers found that when the number of low-performing schools that had to offer transfers rose by 10 percentage points in an area, parent search activity on GreatSchools jumped by 7.2 percent. And by contrast, if a state later secured a waiver from NCLB's transfer requirements, school searches in communities that previously had public school choice fell by 4 percent out of every 10 percentage-point increase it had previously gained.

The researchers also found that when a charter school opened in an area, school searches rose by 5.3 percent.

The findings imply, they wrote, that "for many families, the availability of school-quality information alone is not sufficient to lead them to become better informed about school options. Parents must also have an incentive to seek and use this information."

School Presentation Matters

The Education Next study does not examine what data users looked at in response to their searches, and forthcoming research previewed at the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management conference in Chicago last week suggest small changes in format among different school-ratings sites can make a big difference in what information parents come away with.

In one study, Steven Glazerman, a┬ásenior fellow at Mathematica Policy Research, analyzed 14 school-ratings sites serving a dozen cities nationwide. The study included sites like GreatSchools, run by nonprofit organizations, but also those run by city agencies like Washington, D.C.'s My School DC, school choice advocacy groups like Kids First Chicago, and even a parent-created site used in Memphis. Across the sites, Glazerman found no consensus on how to present school data, and in particular how to sort schools in a list. Not all sites included schools from all different sectors, and equal numbers of sites defaulted to sorting schools by academic quality, distance, or just school name—though most sites allowed users to choose to prioritize characteristics before seeing school listings.

Prior research has shown the default format for listing options can strongly influence what people ultimately choose. "There's a diversity of approaches out there but what's really interesting to me is that there're a lot of choices one has to make as a [school information site] designer, and there's no such thing as not making a choice. There's no such thing as 'no default,'" Glazerman said. "Whether it's conscious or unconscious, you are probably nudging parents toward certain types of schools. All these decisions are really value-laden, and they are going to be made in different ways by GreatSchools or a city agency or by a school-choice advocacy group."

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