Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Do Parents Choose School Quality or School Racial/Class Composition?

Part 2 of 3 on school choice. Yesterday's posting here.

A central concern in the school choice debate is whether parents choose schools based on school quality (i.e. academic performance and school culture/climate) or school status (race and class composition). Survey data addressing school choice certainly suggest that parents care about academic performance. But stated preferences (what people say) and revealed preferences (what people really do) are very different things. My conclusion from reading this literature is that parents of all backgrounds - i.e. low/high income or white/minority - are choosing on racial and class composition as much or more than they are choosing on "true" school quality as captured by schools' academic performance and climates.

I've been reading NCES Commissioner Mark Schneider and colleague Jack Buckley's book, Charter Schools: Hope or Hype?. One chapter of this book reports on an innovative study of parental preferences through which parents' use of a website ( was tracked, such that the researchers could document which features of the schools parents looked at, and in what order. Guess what the heaviest hitter was? Demographics.

The Schneider/Buckley study adds to a growing body of evidence on this issue. A new paper by Teachers College professors Aaron Pallas and Carolyn Riehl found that even after controlling for the academic quality of the school, schools in New York City with higher concentrations of black and ELL kids received fewer applications; this is in a district that is only 15% white, so non-white families are driving these patterns. Another study by Salvatore Saporito and Annette Lareau, while finding white aversion to schools with high black concentrations, found that African-Americans also attempt to avoid schools with high poverty rates. This is not just a US phenomenon - researchers looking at the UK (see Stephen Ball), Chile (see Greg Elacqua), and New Zealand (see Edward Fiske and Sunny Ladd) have identified similar patterns - school socioeconomic and racial composition are central elements of the choice process.

For a qualitative look at this process, check out Jennifer Holme's study. She's a professor of education at the UT-Austin, and also found that parents prioritize school race/class composition, rather than school quality, in her study of home purchasing behavior. For example, one parent interviewed explained her choices in the following way:

We also looked at the mix, the ethnic see if we could determine if there was a lot of foreign students, I guess you'd call them....We just felt like if there is...a language barrier or things like that to overcome, that might cheat the education process a bit...I believe it's good to be shown other cultures and everything, but there definitely seemed to be a correlation...I just thought we were going to try to avoid that.

Considered together, these studies provide sobering evidence about the potential of increased school choice to spur schools to improve the quality of education they offer. If parents aren't choosing on school quality, "market pressures" can't work to improve school quality. Perhaps more importantly, these studies offer another reminder of the central role that race continues to play in American education.

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