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. (more…)