Thursday, August 11, 2022 Aug 11, 2022
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Economists Say School Choice is Overrated

By Jason Heid |

The Wall Street Journal today saw fit to cover the big brouhaha up in Plano, where parents from a wealthier part of town are upset about their kids being funneled to a high school in a poorer area, rather than the new school under construction closer to their own neighborhoods.

Among the parents’ concerns is that a significantly lower percentage of kids at the school in the lower-income area meet the state’s testing standards, compared to Plano ISD’s other campuses. But this raises a question of cause and effect.  Is the school lagging behind because it’s lousy, in and of itself, or do the kids that currently attend that school suffer from other disadvantages that result in weaker academic performance?

In his book Freakonomics, economist Steven Levitt of the University of Chicago delved into some of the factors that correlate with higher test scores at public schools. Essentially who your parents are–what socioeconomic background you come from–is more predictive of academic success than is getting into a sought-after school. Take heart, those who may be shut out of Travis.

Here are some factors that are found to relate to higher test scores, as well as others that don’t. (Forgive me for drawing on Wikipedia for this, but I don’t have the book with me at the office.):

Factors that are important in determining high standardized test scores in children include: highly educated parents, high socioeconomic status, maternal age of greater than thirty when the child was born, low birth weight, English as the primary language spoken in the home, parental involvement in the PTA, and many books in the home environment. Also, adopted children tended to have lower standardized test scores than their non-adopted peers. Factors that are not important in determining high standardized test scores in children include: the family is intact, the parents recently moved to a better neighborhood, the mother didn’t work between birth and kindergarten, the child attended Head Start (US government program providing education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families), the parents regularly take the child to museums, the child is regularly spanked, the child frequently watches television, the parents read to the child nearly every day.

So a great parent, one who himself or herself is well-off financially and well-educated and actively engaged in education, is more important in determining academic success than where a child is enrolled. Enough of those kids start attending Williams High School in Plano, and you would predict that its test scores would rise to be right in line with the rest of PISD. Here’s more from Levitt:

Even if the school is not at all good at adding value, it will still have the best outputs, because it had the best inputs … Parents don’t have good information on the inputs to a school, only the outputs, so it is difficult for them to accurately assess value added.

You can read a more detailed study of the issue of school choice here. Its key conclusion:

Our findings present a mixed picture for the potential gains from school choice in urban districts. If the primary goal is to improve measures of academic achievement and attainment, then it does not appear that this mechanism is effective. The findings are consistent with an even stronger conclusion that attending “better” schools as measured by a variety of level measures of student performance does not systematically improve short-term academic outcomes.

They go on to say that there may be social benefits to school choice, including moving children to an environment where staying out of trouble (not getting arrested) is easier. But the middle-class parents who fear seeing their children at Williams probably don’t have to worry about having them turn to a life of crime.