Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Mitigating the risk of making a bad schooling choice

'Tis the season for school shopping, as certain programs and schools have deadlines for fall enrollment quickly approaching. An article last week in the New York Times covered this subject by following one mother's struggle to find the right high school for her daughter. The irony was that this mother was an expert on the city's schools. Says the article:

"...Ms. Hemphill literally wrote the book on the subject — her series of “New York City’s Best Schools” books are regarded as the bible for navigating school choices — yet she has found herself befuddled and overwhelmed trying to help her 13-year-old daughter, Allison Snyder, find a spot."

Choosing from among the best and most selective public high schools in New York City is the kind of problem many parents in Milwaukee would like to have. But choosing a school here in Milwaukee can be similarly daunting. City residents can choose:

  • a neighborhood MPS school;

  • a specialty MPS school, with options including Montessori, Waldorf, fine arts, or technical careers, among many others;

  • a charter school, chartered by either the city, UWM, or MPS;

  • a suburban public school, either through open enrollment or the city-suburb integration program;

  • or a private school, with those who can afford it paying tuition and those who can't using a tax-payer funded voucher.
Perhaps someone needs to write a book on Milwaukee's best schools. Having spent nine years at the Forum studying schooling in Milwaukee and co-authoring a previous book on school choice, I could be a good candidate to do so. But I would have to reveal the dirty little secret about choosing schools: There's no rule requiring parents to choose schools based on academic criteria. Parents can choose a school for any reason whatsoever.

I learned the secret when I was choosing a school in Milwaukee for my own son. I found myself, one of the "experts," basing my choice on location, a full-day pre-Kindergarten program, and an award-winning afterschool program. It made sense for us, becasue my husband and I both work downtown full-time and having eight hours of convenient child care a day was important. But academics didn't really enter the picture and we could have chosen based on any number of quirky reasons. In fact, we briefly considered a private school, but rejected it based on the junk-food-laden lunch menu.

The New York family narrowed their choices using arbitrary criteria of their own. Reports The Times: "She focused on smaller schools that were no more than 45 minutes from home and would offer her a chance to take advanced classes but also give her enough time to focus on dance and theater after school."

There may be facets of a school that are a greater priority than academic performance for the parents choosing that school--religious instruction, teaching methodology, and student discipline, for example. Certain schools can thus attract parents despite low scores. But, as a result, competition among schools may not result in better school performance and there is little evidence that it has, in Milwaukee.

So, if even school performance "experts" find choosing schools difficult and overwhelming, due to all the factors that could be considered, can anything be done to help regular parents exercise their choice more efficiently and with better results?

The answer is simple: mitigate the risk of making the choice. Parents who are wealthy enough to exercise their school choice by choosing to buy a home in a good school district don't have much risk attached to that decision-making process. They are able to choose from among a host of academically good options.

School choice in its various guises in Milwaukee was supposed to result in similar empowerment for Milwaukee's low-income parents, but it has not, mainly because their choices carry risks: quite a few of the schools available to them are not performing adequately, according to data from a state-sanctioned evaluation of voucher schools and charter school test scores. If parents were making choices based on school performance, this would not be a concern, as we could assume they would not choose bad schools. But they aren't (which we know from the number of voucher schools that have failed despite having rather large enrollments) and so, despite the availability of choice, many children in Milwaukee are continuing to suffer educationally.

The state has recently taken steps aimed at mitigating the risk of choice, by requiring voucher schools to be accredited, for example. But there are few other regulations regarding academic offerings and accountability.

Having a choice among mostly poorly performing schools is no better than not having a choice at all. Without accountability for academic performance, we put the burden on parents to be experts on schooling, instead of expecting schools to excel.

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