The myth of the rational education market
The opinions expressed are her own.
In this excerpt from “The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve,” author Peg Tyre explains how the educational “free market” created by the charter school system doesn’t guarantee parents will pick the best schools for their kids. In fact, with objective information hard to come by, even more pressure is on parents to gain — and exploit — data about school quality in order to outperform the educational market.
The idea that school choice is automatically better than no choice has recently been reinforced again, with the “Parent Trigger” in California. Under a law passed there last year, parents whose children attend underperforming public schools can get together, and if 51% of them sign a petition, they can demand their district change the school administrators or convert the school to a charter. So far, a parent group from Compton “pulled the trigger,” but parents from poor urban schools and well-funded suburban schools have been seeking information on how to use the Parent Trigger law to improve their schools.
Similar bills, which are supported by education reformers on both sides of the political aisle, have been passed in Connecticut, Ohio and Mississippi. About a half dozen state legislatures—including New York — are expected to consider Parent Trigger type bills this year.
When it comes to education, this may well be The Year of The Parent. For decades, educational professionals have talked about the importance of “parental engagement” to insure positive outcomes for kids. But in the past, the limits of that engagement have been clear. Parents were expected to show up for parent teacher conferences, chaperone a class trip and maybe whip up some cookies for a bake sale. Suddenly, with the rise of the Parent Trigger, and similar measures around the country, parent engagement may start to truly become a force that pushes schools toward real reform.
Not sure you are up to the task? Blame Milton Friedman. For the last forty years, economists have urged education reformers to unleash the power of the free market. If parents, the most highly motivated stakeholders in the education process, the theory goes, were given a choice about where to send their kids to school, and the state and federal funding followed each student, good schools would thrive and bad schools would wither and die.
And policy makers listened. In the last fifteen years, school choice has become the cornerstone of school reform. Middle and low-income parents routinely chose between district run, charter, magnet and specialized programs. Measures like the Parent Trigger now demand parents to take an even larger role—not just choosing schools for their child but selecting operators of those schools for their community.
With power comes great responsibility. Soon after parents embark on the process of selecting a school for their child—or helping to reform one—most parents quickly figure out 1) that, second to conceiving, this is probably the most important set of decisions they will ever make for their child’s future and 2) they don’t have a clue what they are doing.
Where do parents go to get the information they need? According to researchers, many parents rely on the opinion of other parents when deciding where to send their children to school. Sometimes that works. Other times it creates an echo chamber that can cloak real improvement and, even more troubling, hide a school’s worrisome deficits. Most parents look at test scores – but how many really know what test scores actually measure and how to interpret them? Some of us say we want schools that are safe, that are nurturing and that are close enough to home so that our children’s educational experience strengthens their ties to their neighborhood, their community or the place our family worships. Armed with that vague checklist, we tour schools and visit classrooms—clueless about what we are seeing and good questions to ask. Then we go with our “instinct.” It’s like buying a car without looking under the hood.
Currently, American parents of school-aged children are the best-educated people in the history of the country. We’ve seen how the economic downturn of the last three years has disproportionately affected people without a college education. We know how important succeeding in school can be. And we know that when it comes to evaluating schools, we should be doing better.
So here’s the good news and bad news. The bad news first: there is no one size fits all model for a perfect school. If you think about it, the curriculum that is perfect for the child of migrant farm workers in Sausalito is not going to suit the child of two biochemists in Darien. Anyone who tells you otherwise is dreaming. The good news, though, is that there are ways that all kinds of parent can inform themselves about education so they can make better decisions that suit their circumstances. Parents need to learn what a good preschool looks like, and why it’s important to make sure your child goes to one. How neuroscientists say we read—and why some reading programs commonly used in schools leave as many as a third of kids behind. How math-phobic teachers can depress your child’s achievement. What to do if your child is not working at grade level. (Hint: You need to act now.) And how to spot an excellent teacher and to enroll your child in a school where teachers are scaffolded, mentored and retained, so that excellence is sustained, year after year.
For parents, the learning curve will be steep. But we don’t have much choice. Our federal and state governments must provide all families with well-run schools and well-trained teachers. But it is up to parents to make sure our children get what they need. The economists were right in one respect: the desire to see our children succeed burns bright in parents from every walk of life. But it is up to parents to turn that spark into an enduring flame.
From “THE GOOD SCHOOL: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve” by Peg Tyre. Copyright © 2011 by Peg Tyre. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company LLC.