education philosopher

School Choice, Bad Mistakes, and Saving Parents From Themselves (Part I)

Posted in Politics of Education by KevinCK on July 3, 2009

One key question in any discusison about school choice asks what would happen in a deregulated “education market” if (when) parents make bad choices about their children’s education. Dan Willingham has written a brief article regarding this question from the view of a cognitive psychologist.

From his perspective – I agree – it is quite likely that at least some parents will make bad choices on behalf of their children’s education. Some parents may lack the education to make an informed choice; other parents may not put a high value on education and, thus, may not research the decision as much as, say, a decision on which TV or car to buy. Further, other parents may simply make a mistake in their decision; despite doing much research, some parents will just make mistakes about which school to send their children to.

Willingham offers several different reasons why parents may make poor decisions regarding their children’s education, some I agree with more than others. Rightly, he suggests that “may value features of a school that have nothing to do with education quality. For example, that the school is geographically convenient.” (The only criticism i have of this speculation is that for many, geographic convenience IS a necessary factor, as one may prefer a good school five miles away to a decent school 25 miles away for good reason).

Willingham also suggests, wrongly, that:

[T]he outcome measures won’t be all that clear to parents, even assuming that there is better school-level information than is now available. Andy Rotherham made this point persuasively in regard to education policy in US News & World Report, and I believe that the same goes for individuals. Sure, standardized tests are informative, but those will be averages. One can imagine parents feeling that their child seems to be doing fine in his school, even if averages are low. One can also imagine that some parents might simply not believe that standardized test scores capture anything important.

In other words, parents might make bad decisions about schools because all the relevant information may not be available, and some information that parents may want to see (standardized test scores) do not give the parent all the information that they SHOULD take into account. The problem with Willingham’s speculation is that the same can be said about making decisions about cars, colleges, homes, air conditioning units, and any other major (or minor) purchase a person could make. People may care about whether a car can go from 1 to 60 in x mph, or a car’s look, rather than finding out about its reliability or projected resale value.

That is why there exists many “shoppers guides” both in print and via website to help consumers buy the aforementioned items, and I cannot imagine that if school choice became a reality, the same would not quickly happen in the field of education. Just like the many guides that exist to help parents and students choose colleges, I believe that guides to help parents and students choose k-12 institutions would quickly pop up.

Further, if schools were forced to sell themselves, I have to believe that they schools would collect a lot of data to use in “selling customers on” their school. As it stands now, the data collected by public (and private) school are very myopic because it is rare for parents or students to shop around (or be permitted to shop around). Once parents and students are able to shop around, the education market will become just like the college market in its wide data collection employed to ” sell consumers” on their particular institution.

Even with all that said, I am sure that some parents will still make errors in choosing schools for their children. As mentioned, some parents don’t put high priority on education, others may lack the wherewithall to make good choices about education, and some may simply just screw up in their decision making. So, what of it? Does the fat that some parents make bad decisions necessarily mean that government should take over all or nearly all of the decision making power from all parents?

Here, Willingham hands the discussion over to political theorists and those concerned with policy:

We are no longer debating whether choice will improve schools but about philosophy of governance. What happens if parents do not make sensible educational choices for their children?…

Happily, as a cognitive psychologist I feel free to let those questions remain rhetorical…

I have a lot to say about this issue and will have that discussion in my next post. Does the fact that some parents may not make good decisions regarding their child’s education mean that the government (or someone besides parents) should make those choices on our behalf? I think you know may answer (no) but stay tuned for the exposition.

[This post is also reproduced at the blog Liberty and Reason.]

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2 Responses

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  1. Doug1943 said, on July 11, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    And not only might parents make bad choices about schools, but government bureaucrats just possibly might make bad choices too. Not out of ignorance, but because they are subject to more and different pressures than parents are.

    Not just market failure, but state failure. And the problem with state failure is that it tends to take us all down, not just the bad choice-makers.

  2. KevinCK said, on July 11, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    Great point. If a parent makes a bad choice, their child and they are affected. If the government bureau or “education czar” makes a bad choice, everyone lives with it.

    Unfortunately – and I will cover this in my next post in this series – there is an urge to “save others from themselves.” Everyone is convinced that if individuals get to choose for themselves, they will choose wrongly, and there seems a huge urge amongst people to make sure that everyone else’s choices agree with our own.


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