Fixing the School Choice Equation with New Technology to Choose and Judge Schools

We are finally paying some attention to parents and families in the whole school choice thing, creating better tools to help families choose schools, but we have a long way to go.   Good to see making their site more responsive and also OUSD working on a better school finder tool, but looking at these tools I wonder whether they will really reach and serve our most underserved families.

School choice has historically been much more about trying to increase the supply of good schools and much less about making sure that families actively choose and are matched with well-fitting schools.  And it has been even less concerned with the most underserved families who may not even engage in the choice process.

I am kind of a hack economist, and even I know that for “markets” to work consumers need good information about the quality and costs of products.  I don’t really believe in the analogies that school choice is like a market (that rant will come later), but I do think that the costs of getting information about good school choices and activating those historically have been totally inequitable.  It has been historically hard to get information about school quality and fit (except through reputation and word of mouth).  And more sophisticated families or those with more resources tend to benefit most.

So it’s good to start to see more, better and more diversely delivered information starting to get out there, but we have a long way to go.  And I wonder whether our real parents, who most need these tools, are the ones who will benefit.  And looking at the tools I wonder whether they consulted with the parents who really need these tools and designed the resources for them.

Two recent examples; the GreatSchools Upgrade covered in EdSource this week, and the OUSD Schoolfinder Beta which is due to roll out for real next year, are covered here. recently released a new tool to update their current site, which is widely used, but in my opinion wasn’t really easy to navigate and was only in English (though you could scroll through a page of text and hit the “translate” button last time I checked).  EdSource describes it here,

GreatSchools, an Oakland-based nonprofit that provides millions of parents nationwide with information about their children’s schools, believes the index has vital information that California parents want and has launched a new project to make that data easier to find…

  • A Spanish translation of the information;
  • For several “spotlight” districts and schools in five San Francisco Bay Area counties, an interactive color-coded chart comparing schools’ test results, graduation rates and students’ readiness for college (the percentages of high school graduates who qualified for a four-year California public university) for all students and for historically low-performing subgroups: low-income students, African-American students and Hispanic students;
  • Comparisons that are easy to access on mobile devices, which low-income parents use more frequently than home computers, according to GreatSchools;
  • Location of nearby schools, including charter schools and schools in adjoining districts, with higher ratings than a student’s local school.

OUSD also has piloted its schoolfinder tool, which guides parents through a set of menus to identify schools that are a fit.  It’s in the beta stage, so I will try to reserve criticism, but it seems to only be in English, while 30% of students are English Language learners and probably more parents are.  It definitely had some bugs (I could not compare the schools I chose) and while it did have a few program menus (after school, language immersion programs), I think it missed other huge ones, school size, language support offered, measures of safety or culture, and academic quality.

So these are good steps in democratizing information and helping to create matches for families.  And I hope that they keep developing, talking to our most challenged parents and testing these systems with them.

There is nothing magical about choice that inevitably leads to greater equity, rather our policy decisions and tools set the context in which choices take place and are honored.  This means that we need to evaluate any of these tools based not only on whether more families choose, but on whether they inject more equity into the system, and what the results of those choices are.  I have long felt that we could do much better by parents here, and that relatively trivial activities—like getting farmers to date each other (aka–got more investment than the immensely important school choice and matching process.

Let’s hope this is the first step in a long journey in the right direction.


What do you think?

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