Choosing well

Low-income people aren’t always shrewd shoppers, writes Education Sector’s Erin Dillon.  Even when a supermarket and a bank open up inthe neighborhood, some will keep patronizing high-priced, low-quality corner markets and currency exchange shops. School choice proponents should learn how to help low-income parents recognize high-quality schools and avoid the duds.

About Joanne


  1. Tracy W says:

    How about they first try teaching high-income people how to pick good schools?
    (I’ve never been very impressed with the quality of elite private schools on average. I am prepared to believe that some parents who send their kids to them made the right decision given their specific circumstance, but I’ve never seen any data that indicates that most parents get their moneys-worth in terms of educational quality, and I have several anecdotes to the contrary).

  2. Making it easy for poor people, or rich people, to pick good schools consists of nothing more then putting a big, electronic sign out in front of every school that shows the school’s educational ranking.

    My guess is that parents who enjoy the distinction of sending their kid to the lousiest school in the county, or the state, are liable to be look to their alternatives.

    Jeez, maybe I ought to have a cushy, think tank berth.

  3. Margo/Mom says:

    I think that perhaps the issue is one of different value-scales. When my district surveyed parents (and was shocked that 1 in 5 would consider leaving the district), they discovered that the top concerns driving parent choice had to do with safety and individual attention. Reality is, many of the choice schools offer these things, even if they are not providing a better deal academically.

    Even the high-priced neighborhood store and the check-cashing places offer things of value in a low-income neighborhood. The store may sell “loosies,” or just offer a friendly ambiance to folks that are followed around a grocery store by the security guard. Some (albeit illegaly) sell non-food items for food stamps. The check-cashing place offers (high-priced) services that are unavailable in any bank–short term signature loans, phone cards. In short, they are in a position to know (and exploit) their market.

  4. Tracy W says:

    Allen – that ranking is to a large extent driven by the quality of the students attending the school.
    The kids I know whose parents removed them from elite private schools and sent them to public schools (or in one case removed himself over his parents’ objections) did so for a variety of reasons:
    – the elite private school didn’t offer enough classes in the sciences
    – the elite private school had major bullying problems
    – the elite private school had a poor quality teacher in English, the child’s obsession.

    Poeple also remove their kids from public schools and send them to private schools for similar reasons.

    On the other hand, I know a parent who withdrew her child from the local public primary school and sent her to an elite private school because the public school told her that her child had a reading problem (she didn’t disbelieve them, she just wanted her daughter to have the best education). It took the elite private school two years to work out that her child had a reading problem. That school had fine test scores at its high school stage, far better than the public high school most of the kids at the public primary school went to. The public school though had many children from low socio-economic backgrounds and was far more on top of teaching reading.

  5. James VanderHoff found that charter schools with longer waiting lines have better academic track records:

    Parents figure out quickly how to shop for schools, and more parents are lining up outside good schools than at bad school.

  6. palisadesk says:

    People send their children to “elite” private schools for other than academic reasons, as well. One acquaintance of mine has her daughter at a very exclusive school (which does also have high academic standards). This mom was complaining about how much time she had to spend every night getting the child to complete classwork that was not done in class (in addition to assigned homework). When she complained to the school, the teacher said something like, “I have X children in a second-third grade class, and I can’t be on top of your daughter every minute.”

    True enough, but this woman is paying approximately $25,000/yr in tuition fees, while her neighborhood public school is also *very* high ranking and excels academically. I said, “Why don’t you put her at ABC school? You’re paying $25 000 per year and YOU are ending up doing most of the teaching!! How much sense does THAT make?”

    Oh no, the mom said. I’m not paying them $25,000 for the teaching. I’m paying for the connections and relationships and networking that she can depend on as a result of being a student, and later an alumna, of Elite School.

    So she was making an informed choice after all. Not the choice someone else might make, but she was happy with it.

  7. Tracy W says:

    Palisadesk – I do think that a major reason why people send their kids to elite schools is that they will go to schools with the kids of other rich parents. I also think that another major reason is that it shows off the income you can afford, in a more subtle way than by buying this year’s sports car. (“Oh, my daughter Sarah’s at Marsden and James is at Scots” really said something about your family income in my hometown).

    However, even if you are spending $25,000 per year for the social contacts and the boasting rights, why not get a top-notch academic education out of your $25,000 as well? And then there’s the parents I know who put down a term’s fees, brought the school uniform, and then waved good-bye to them and had to buy a new school uniform – presumably they did not waste all that money on purpose.

  8. Parent2 says:

    We’re sending our son to an elite private school because he’s getting a challenging education. Our local public school’s expenditure on regular education students is more than $2000 below the national average–in an area with an extremely high cost of living.

    Of course some students come from very wealthy families. I also know many families at his school who are stretching to pay tuition. It’s a question of priorities. The papers are now speculating about class sizes from 35 to 50 students in California. At some point, the extra expense is worth the sacrifice for families.

  9. Oh Tracy, you have no idea of how ironic that statement is on this particular blog.

    Joanne’s book, along with more then a few other books and schools, puts the lie to the “blame the students” excuse for lousy schools although the nakedly self-serving nature of that particular defense of the current public education system is why it gets a snort of derision outside the teacher’s lounge and, among the more honest practitioners, within the teacher’s lounge as well.

    The question at issue though is whether poor parents can make an informed choice about the educational quality of the school. I think, given adequate and accessible information, they can and absent that sort of information they’ll make due as they have been by choosing charters where available.

  10. An analysis of the Moving To Opportunity program at Education Next:

    Poor families were given vouchers to enable them to move to better neighborhoods. This report analyses the lack of gains in academic achievement.