The Ice Cream Market Works; Why Doesn’t the Market for Education?
Edspresso links to an article in the Washington Post about how to choose the best school for your child. Anybody who thinks there’s no problem with the public education system needs to take a look. The first recommendation is to buy a really, really expensive house. It doesn’t get any more encouraging as you read on. Elite high schools don’t guarantee admission to the Ivy League. Middle schools are universally bad. And as for elementary school, just close your eyes and let your finger fall on a map, because it doesn’t matter anyway:
All the studies show that you are going to have much more influence over your child’s academic achievement through sixth grade than the elementary school you choose. So as long as the school is safe and you like it, it really doesn’t matter whether its test scores are not the highest.
There’s some sensible advice here for example, talk to other parents, and don’t stress out if your kids don’t get into the top magnet school but the article reveals the difficult situation many parents find themselves in. If you don’t have a lot of money, you don’t have much choice about where your kids go to school. Not everyone has the financial means to follow that all-important first step.
Even for those who can afford the priciest neighborhoods or the steepest tuition, a largely monopolistic education market doesn’t offer them many attractive choices. Middle schools are all bad? Elementary schools are irrelevant? No, of course not. But in the public system, they all look about the same to a newcomer. They just come in neighborhoods with different price tags. How can you tell if you’re getting the best sixth-grade teacher or the most enthusiastic principal? It’s a gamble. There are some charter schools and private schools that specialize, that have well-defined goals, and that attract parents. But they’re vastly outnumbered by the plain-vanilla public schools.
Speaking of vanilla, and because I want to prove that I have nothing against ice cream, here’s an analogy: Suppose you went to an ice cream store, and you weren’t sure which flavor of ice cream to buy. Would you throw up your hands and say, "Well, it doesn’t matter which flavor I buy, because studies show that ice cream flavor has little effect in the long run," or, "I don’t care whether I get chocolate brownie or chocolate fudge, because chocolates are all bad?" Or maybe you’d think, "Whatever flavor I get, I’m fine because this is an expensive neighborhood." I hope not. You’d probably think about which flavors you’ve personally liked in the past, and maybe you’d ask which ones most other customers prefer. In other words, you’d make a choice.
Parents who can choose consider what their kids are interested in and how they learn best. They read school publications and they ask which schools retain satisfied families. If they try a school but find it’s not the best for them, they can switch schools without hiring a U-Haul truck.
But those are the lucky few for now. Parental choice policies could give that freedom to all parents. That would be good, because matching students with the schools where they’ll learn best is much more important than matching people with ice cream flavors.