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How School Choice Changes the Relationship Between Parents and Schools

How do parents get interested in choosing schools? How does the act of choosing a school affect parents? On this front, we know much, much less than we should. Happily, in their terrific new book The School Choice Journey, which draws on their influential work evaluating the Washington DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), Thomas Stewart and Patrick Wolf take a deep dive into the real experiences of families in order to provide some intriguing answers. Stewart is president of Patten University and Wolf, who may currently be the nation's most influential researcher on school choice, sits in the Chair in School Choice at the University of Arkansas. (Full disclosure: The book is published as part of a series that I co-edit for Palgrave Macmillan.)

A few weeks ago, while discussing Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj's smart new book on how families negotiate New York City's system of high school choice, I (yet again) observed how sorely we need researchers to explore how parental choice actually works and how to help it work better. To date, research has focused on proving that school choice is a terrible thing or that it "works." As somebody who works at the American Enterprise Institute, where scholars who generally appreciate markets take pains to explore the challenges implicit in regulation and also in deregulation (of airlines, telecommunications, banking, health care, and much else), the dearth of attention to how educational markets work—as opposed to whether they work—has always struck me as bizarre.

Fortunately, this slender book uses an array of surveys, focus groups, and interviews to dig into the key questions. Stewart and Wolf offer a terrific framework for thinking about the nature of choice. When it comes to the different relationships that public agencies can have with program participants, the authors distinguish between clientism, consumerism, and active citizenship. Clientism treats individuals as simple recipients, placing little emphasis on soliciting feedback from participants. They argue that this is the typical relationship of low-income parents to schools.

Stewart and Wolf find that the process of participating in the DC scholarship program led many parents into a new trajectory, one in which they started to approach schools as consumers. Before the program, most participating families had never ventured outside their neighborhood schools to explore other educational opportunities. They'd never had the chance or the need to evaluate schools, ask questions, or take actions (like filling out applications or visiting schools) that involved them in the process. Few had ever even bought houses or cars, and had little experience with comparing services or providers. In the course of the program, parents developed more awareness of the need to compare schools, interest in the data that allows them to, and self-confidence in their ability to do so.

At the same time, Stewart and Wolf note, "a minority of families failed to make this transition to effective consumers." Instead, these parents remained passive in the search process and in relation to the schools their children attended.

Stewart and Wolf then explored whether families participating in OSP would make a leap from being active consumers to being active citizens. While many critics suggest that school choice will undermine the public square, Stewart and Wolf conceptualize choice as a gateway to empower the disempowered and give parents a sense of efficacy. They find that few OSP parents were politically engaged before the program, but that "the relatively low level of political activism...changed dramatically after the program was capped and threatened with extinction in 2009." Parents mobilized on behalf of the program, testifying, rallying, organizing, and speaking with political leaders. (Now, whether this kind of "save my program" advocacy leads to a more broadly engaged citizenry is an open question well worth exploring.)

Stewart and Wolf offer plenty of takeaways and recommendations for improving choice programs, but you can read the book to pick that stuff up. I'll close with just one really intriguing finding. The authors spent a lot of time delving into what parents looked for in schools and asking how they judged school quality. In Figure 5.2, the authors reported on interactive polling that asked parents how they gauged their child's academic improvement. More than two-thirds of the parents said "that general attitudinal and behavioral indicators were the primary means" of gauging improvement and "no parent reported that standardized test scores were their primary measure of schooling success." More specifically, the top six measures cited by parents were, in order: student motivation, student grades, changed student attitudes, changed student behaviors, feedback from teachers, and improved study habits. Readers will notice that testing is absent from this list.

That might mean that today's emphasis on testing is off-base, that parents are naïve judges of school quality, or much else. More importantly, these are the kinds of questions that we only think to ask when thoughtful scholars go deep inside the black box, and that will only get answered by more of the same.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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