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Families & the Community Opinion

Parents Take Choice Driver’s Seat, But Few Have a Map

By Bryan C. Hassel & Emily Ayscue Hassel — October 02, 2004 8 min read
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Knowing how to identify what matters for school is a severely underdeveloped skill among parents.

The days of expert debates about “whether” to expand school choice are steadily shrinking in the rearview mirror. Instead the debate is moving to “how” and “how well” parents will choose. Why? By the millions, individual parents are driving the nation toward more school choice.

The days of expert debates about “whether” to expand school choice are steadily shrinking in the rearview mirror. Instead the debate is moving to “how” and “how well” parents will choose. Why? By the millions, individual parents are driving the nation toward more school choice.

When they have a choice, parents of all kinds choose in large numbers. In 2003, a majority of U.S. parents reported having a choice among public schools, and millions of them are taking advantage of it, the latest survey by the National Center for Education Statistics shows. Among children with parents aware that they had a public choice (51 percent), 35 percent attended alternative schools, both public and private.

Fully 12.5 million children attended schools other than their assigned public schools in 2003 (not including home-schooled children), up from just 8.6 million in 1993, an increase of 45 percent. The school-age population increased by only 4 percent during this period. The greatest increase occurred among children attending chosen public schools, up by 57 percent, to 7.4 million children. In addition, millions of parents whose children attend their assigned public schools are proactive choosers. One quarter of U.S. students, roughly 13 million, have parents who moved to their current neighborhoods because of the schools.

Experts with qualms about which parents would take advantage of choice are relieved to find that school choice cuts across social strata. Among parents aware that they had public options, the same survey shows that poor, African-American, and the least educated parents are now more likely to opt for public schools of choice than parents in other income, ethnic, and education groups. The wealthiest and most educated parents are similarly likely to opt out of assigned schools, but they are more likely to choose private schools.

Given these facts, debates about whether choice is a good idea seem anachronistic. We need to turn our attention to a new question: If parents have slipped into the school choice driver’s seat, how well equipped are they to drive? There’s no driver more dangerous than a passionate, ill-prepared one. How can we give parents driving lessons and a map?

Right now, the road is full of peril. We recently spent three years researching how parents should and do choose schools. We heard countless stories of good parental intentions gone bad. Even well-educated, affluent parents living in high-choice cities seem befuddled at best and misinformed at worst. Those without access to strong peer information networks are at even more of a disadvantage. Too many parents lament the years lost when they “trusted the school,” only to bail after their children’s stress became too much to bear. Whether the ill was suffocating boredom, hopeless struggling, or overwhelming feelings of being a misfit, that stress takes its toll on parents and leaves indelible marks on the child.

Help for parents today comes in a confusing morass of incomplete maps and verbal directions. School district counselors naturally inform about public options, and are generally hesitant to admit that school quality may differ significantly within the same district. Community-based organizations have begun helping parents with these decisions, but that kind of help is still patchy and basic. Many parents get advice from family and friends, but their counsel is often based on misconceptions or the experiences of children with different needs. The quality of any advice likely is hit or miss. Desperate parents are easy targets for anybody’s “wisdom,” whether accurate or not.

Unbiased help comes mainly in the form of standardized-test scores. But these almost always come to parents in the form of percentages of kids at grade level. For an individual parent making a choice, this summary number is more or less useless—absent more information about students’ starting points. Percent-at-grade-level figures alone also mask massive variation in how much differing children learn in a school.

Disaggregation by factors such as race and income helps, but it’s not sufficient. Knowing that African-American children as a group met grade-level standards at a high rate, for example, tells a parent little if her African- American daughter is already above grade level. Knowing that white children in general achieved at a school isn’t much help to a parent whose white child has special learning challenges.

How can we smooth the choice road and make it possible for all parents to find their way? To choose well, parents need to understand both school quality and fit. We define “school quality” based on the numerous well-designed studies that have examined what effective schools do differently from average and low- performing schools. The differentiators, which we call the “Great School Quality Factors,” are familiar territory to people working in education: clear mission, high expectations, frequent monitoring and adjusting, effective teaching methods, strong home-school connections, a safe and orderly environment, and instructional leadership.

Too many parents lament the years lost when they "trusted the school," only to bail after their children's stress became too much to bear.

Parents, though, rarely approach school choices with this kind of framework in mind. As a result, they are easily distracted by misleading indicators like a school’s reputation, facilities, student population, or aggregate scores. Even school and class size, which ease the way for more principals and teachers to perform, can mislead.

“Fit” is more personal. Every child, even one who seems perfectly “average,” has particular learning strengths, weaknesses, and other characteristics that determine how well and with how much joy that child will learn in a particular school. Parents and families also have needs, preferences, and values that affect school fit. But what is important? Every child has a lot of characteristics. Knowing how to identify what matters for school is a severely underdeveloped skill among parents. In order to choose the right school, parents need to understand their few most critical child and family needs and how those needs are best met by schools.

Generally, parents simply do not know what to seek in a school or how to seek it. Even when they do know what to seek, they do not typically have access to the information they need to discern which schools are best for their children.

What can be done? Here’s a short list:

First, communities need much better systems for equipping every parent with the know-how to choose well. Some parents merely need to know what resources, tools, and counselors are available, and they will take the initiative to obtain and use this help independently. Other parents need simple tools and resource lists delivered to their doorsteps, but are able to use those materials and seek follow-up counseling on their own once they’ve gotten a jump-start. Still others need in- person counseling, rather than written material, perhaps embedded in other social services they already receive.

A wide variety of organizations could potentially offer this help. Forward-thinking school districts could do it, but independent sources can more easily inform without fear or bias. Existing citywide education and parent organizations are a natural place to start. In some cities, new organizations with this mission are springing up, funded either locally, federally (the official Parent Information and Resource Centers, or PIRCs), or both.

Mayors and business groups, with their interest in improving education, can serve as catalysts. Public libraries, neighborhood groups, churches, parent associations, and other grassroots entities can play a role in making sure help reaches all parents.

Second, policymakers must keep improving school “report cards” to make them increasingly useful for parents. National databanks like those accessible at www.greatschools.net and www.schoolresults.org, as well as local Web sites in some communities, are a start. Most provide data about the percentage of children achieving at grade level, now conveniently broken down by various categories. But typically lacking are two critical pieces of information parents must see to know how well children like theirs are learning in a school: growth scores indicating how many years worth of new learning children have absorbed; and, data, about both growth and grade-level achievement, broken down by children’s previous performance, not just race and income.

Generally, parents simply do not know what to seek in a school or how to seek it. Even when they do, they do not typically have access to the information needed.

For example, the most important number that low-income parents of gifted children need is not currently available in most places: how much progress gifted students make in a school, not just how many poor kids make grade level or how much progress poor kids make. Similarly, parents of children who are struggling—whatever their race or income—need to know how successful a school has been at raising the achievement of previously low- performing students.

These data fixes are within reach, as many states already track, but do not report, this information. It takes only political and management will to make this change.

Tougher is gathering and providing qualitative information needed for parents to judge both school quality and fit. Even with better school “report cards,” parents will be stuck gathering some information and making some judgments on their own. This is not all bad, because visiting schools and posing questions to educators helps parents understand the schools they choose.

But perhaps some day, trained parent teams will regularly visit schools using a detailed protocol and release Consumer Reports-style guidance. In that future, parents will be able to learn as much about schools as they can now about minivans and strollers. Imagine that.

Bryan C. Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel are the authors of Picky Parent Guide: Choose Your Child’s School with Confidence, The Elementary Years (K-6) (Armchair Press, 2004). Both have written, worked, and consulted in fields related to school leadership, teaching excellence, and educational accountability. They live in Chapel Hill, N.C.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 15, 2004 edition of Education Week as Parents Take Choice Driver’s Seat, But Few Have a Map

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