Public Education, Private Consultation
Not long ago, the New York Times and educationnews.org wrote about the increasing consultation of private experts by parents hoping to steer their children to the best elementary and high schools. As both articles note, this is largely a consequence of the emergence of school choice. Whereas prior generations of students went to the district school or a private academy, the growth of charters, magnets, and other specialty schools funded by the public means that the school choice game for many more people no longer begins with college but, potentially, as early as kindergarten.
The growth of charter schools and other “school choice” programs is intended to harness the benefits of market forces; namely to bring discipline, efficiency and accountability and a focus on customer satisfaction to K-12 education. Arguably, the greatest obstacle to realizing those benefits, as the Times article points out, is what social scientists call “information asymmetry” -where one party in an exchange (in this case, parents) has a deficiency of information relative to the other (teachers and administrators of the schools the parents are “shopping” for). Publicly available information about competing products can just as easily be conflicting, incorrect, or irrelevant as helpful, particularly in the face of constant innovation and differentiation. Of course, the best schools nationwide are widely known; publications such as those by Bloomberg Businessweek, SchoolDigger, Greatschools,org, and others have seen to it. But different families and children have different peculiarities. Brand names and rankings determined by standards not tailored to individual needs may not produce the best fits.
There are of many cases where people make choices without a full consideration of all the information involved. Sometimes, the information involved is highly technical. Or there may also be too many different dimensions for quick and easy comparison. Electronics are a good example: few of us completely understand the workings of computing devices, even though fairly obscure bits of information may have serious implications for durability, customizability, ergonomics, etc. Instead, customers who “do their research” will concentrate on a few key parameters -cost, clock speed, memory, and hard drive space- and perhaps ultimately base their decisions on just two or three of those parameters. It isn’t a perfect approach, but serves most people’s purposes well enough. We have limited cognitive resources, after all, and it is perfectly respectable to use mental shortcuts and rules of thumb to make decisions of relatively modest import.
Education is not a matter of modest import. Unlike an electronic device, a child’s formative years are not replaceable or exchangeable. Neither are the time commitments and effort that parents must make to support the education of their children. It should be no surprise that conscientious parents experience a great deal of anxiety regarding the education of their children, and it should be no surprise that parents with the resources to do so are willing to provide private experts with comfortable incomes in order to make the best decisions.
The New York Times article cites one Noah Sobe who worries that parents are “gaming the system.” With such high stakes, parents can hardly be faulted for doing their best to become as savvy as possible. Perhaps what Mr. Sobe should worry about is not that parents are taking extraordinary pains to make the best choices, but that some parents may find these resources out of reach. But take heart, Mr. Sobe. With the possibilities afforded by the internet and the craftiness of our team at Noodle, we’ll be doing a great deal to lower the rung to climbing the ladder of grade school success.
-Charles Wang, Data Analyst