As supporters celebrate and opponents dissect the Year of School Choice, a timely new report tries to make sense of the way parents value, assess, and act upon available information for making education choices. The study, by Shira Alicia Korn Haderlein of the University of Southern California, is said to be a new twist on previous single-question opinion surveys, but ultimately seems to be more of the same. While it likely illustrates some true aspects of parental preferences in education, it’s limited by the fact that no participants were involved in evaluating real schools or making actual choices for their kids.
Participants were recruited via Amazon’s MTurk Worker platform, which pays individuals across the globe to complete tasks such as the survey used in this study. The adjunct CloudResarch portal filtered respondents based on “quality.” In all, 1,277 individuals took the online survey in two waves during June 2021. Wave 1 comprised 859 respondents who resided in the U.S. and reported being parents. Wave 2 comprised an additional 368 respondents who met the Wave 1 criteria and also identified as Black or Hispanic. In a pre-survey process using other respondents, Korn Haderlein narrowed a list of thirty-three school attributes possibly related to parental choice down to the most popular six: academic achievement status, academic achievement growth, quality of school leadership, graduation rates, chronic absenteeism, and racial demographics of the student body. It is important to note that some big stuff—class size, extracurriculars, social-emotional-learning programming—didn’t make the cut. Additionally, while all respondents were parents, the specific ages of their children were not available. Thus, a respondent could rank “graduation rate” low on their list, not because it’s unimportant, but because their child was only in fifth grade. The final group of respondents was also more female and more educated than the general population.
The twist here is the three-step survey design. Respondents were first asked to rank the importance of the six school attributes, as is typical for a one-step survey of preferences. They then reviewed a set of twenty hypothetical school report cards in which various levels of the six attributes were randomly mixed. (For example, high academic achievement, decreasing growth, below average chronic absenteeism, an even composition of White and non-White students, etc.) Respondents were asked to assess school quality based on that report card on a seven-point Likert scale. Finally, they were given two hypothetical schools with randomly-assigned levels of the six attributes, arranged for maximum contrast, and asked to which of the schools they would send their child.
On average, respondents ranked academic achievement as the most important attribute for them, followed by graduation rate, achievement growth, school leadership, demographic composition, and absenteeism rate. School leadership and demographic composition each had a small group of adherents who ranked it most important but majorities ranked those last. Black and Hispanic respondents ranked chronic absenteeism as more important to them than did their White peers.
As for evaluating school quality—no real surprise here—all attributes mattered. The schools with the overall most positive attribute mixes were deemed by respondents to be the highest-quality schools. Consistent with the ranking data, achievement status was the most impactful predictor of parents’ school quality perceptions. The higher a school’s hypothetical achievement, the higher its quality was deemed to be. Chronic absenteeism brought up the rear in that regard. Student demographics was the only attribute that varied across racial groups, with Black and Hispanic parents rating diverse schools of higher quality than those with mostly White or with mostly non-White students. White parents, by contrast, assigned lower quality ratings to schools with mostly non-White students.
In terms of choosing between two hypothetical schools, the overall preference was to enroll their child in whichever school had the best overall attribute mix. However, analysis indicated that achievement growth was more influential than achievement status in determining final choice, and that chronic absenteeism rate mattered less in the final choice than its previous rankings by respondents would have indicated. White parents were somewhat more likely to choose more diverse schools than all-White schools but less likely to choose schools which were majority non-White. Black and Hispanic parents were more likely to choose diverse schools over both schools with mostly non-White and mostly-White students.
Korn Haderlein suggests that her results are more reliable than the results of one-step preference surveys, and more reliable than revealed preferences via actual choices, which suffer from a host of confounding variables and less-than-perfect informational access. She asserts that parents here “have ample information and unlimited schooling options” within the bounds of this survey due to its more meticulous design. Even if true, that is not the case in the real world. While it is heartening to read that academic achievement likely ranks at or near the top of every parent’s list when evaluating the best possible fit for their child, making real school choices involves distance, non-academic concerns, and other tradeoffs far more difficult to tease out through even the most involved survey design.
SOURCE: Shira Alicia Korn Haderlein, “How Do Parents Evaluate and Select Schools? Evidence From a Survey Experiment,” American Educational Research Journal (September 2021).