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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

The best school? Or the one with the best students?

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Parents don’t choose the most effective schools, according to an analysis of New York City’s high school application system, reports Gail Cornwall in The Atlantic. Parents judge schools by test scores, according to the working paper. Schools that do an OK job with high achievers look good; schools that do a great job with low achievers look just OK.

(Researchers) looked for similar students—ones who shared the same gender and race, lived in the same neighborhood, and got the same eighth-grade test scores—who went to different high schools. The researchers identified many of these “matched pairs” and looked at follow-up data . . . scores on state tests, PSAT scores, high-school graduation records, and college-enrollment information. Then they asked if the kids who went to school A did better at these things than did their essentially identical counterparts at school B; if so, they labeled school A more “effective” than school B.

“School choice may lead to improvements in school productivity if parents’ choices reward effective schools and punish ineffective ones,” researchers wrote. If parents reward schools that start with the best students, the incentive is to recruit the kids who’d do well anywhere.

The analysis did not look at whether student happiness or safety, factors that also are important to parents.

“Parents choose schools based on easily observable things (test scores) rather than very difficult to observe things (actual school quality as estimated (noisily!) by value-added),” writes Lee Crawfurd, an education economist.

“Parents rely on word-of-mouth, reputation, and proxy measures,” such as test scores, to assess school quality, he writes. They can be swayed by marketing or “taken in by unimportant factors like the gleam of a school’s computer lab or the language used to describe its teaching philosophy.”

It seems to me that parents need more information — not less choice.

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