Honest school information crucial for school choice

Supporters of education reform who advocate for government-funded choice mechanisms, such as vouchers, tend to argue the problems in K–12 schools in the United States are primarily economic matters, not pedagogical. This view is validated by much data, but the concept ought to be extended further to say the economic marketplace in which K–12 education operates needs more than vouchers to become as efficient as it needs to be to deliver a quality education to each and every child.

I recently reviewed trends in the performance levels of private and public schools, as reported by The Nation’s Report Card (NRC)—a congressionally mandated project administered by the National Center for Education Statistics, which is within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences—and found a modest but significant correlation between student achievement and the level of competition created by the availability of school choice in the form of vouchers and/or charter schools.

Where choice exists, student performance levels are improving faster than where it is absent, but the pace of student proficiency gains has been quite slow. This indicates many decades will be required for these schools to reach proficient academic performance levels. That’s not going to be good enough, so the United States must seek additional ways to energize the K–12 marketplace. An important missing ingredient is accurate consumer information that would enable parents and others to make wise choices in the selection of schools and other educational services.

Currently, most parents and other stakeholders operate in a sea of misinformation about school performance levels and other school characteristics. Public schools in every state I reviewed were found to have lied routinely and pervasively about student proficiency levels. Typically, twice as many students are deemed proficient, according to the NRC. Proficiency numbers are not usually available at the school or district level, leaving parents and others in the dark as to the performance levels of their local schools.

Private schools, in contrast, tend to hide behind their unearned reputation of being superior to their public school neighbors. It is rare to find a private school that publicizes its student performance levels, but the Nation’s Report Card tells us something about the national comparisons of public to private schools. When judged by how schools educate the same economically disadvantaged children, the surprising results revealed by NRC are public schools and private schools are tied in mathematics, with each only educating about 20 percent of 8th grade students to proficient levels. For reading, private schools are somewhat more effective.

I believe getting honest school performance information into the hands of parents will energize K–12 school reform and bring about the desired results. When parents are informed consumers, they will make better choices, and this will help invigorate the K–12 marketplace so the actual reforms will be nearly automatic. When this “informational choice” is combined with the power provided by vouchers, parents and other stakeholders will know how to hold schools accountable for poor results.

One significant problem is parents are not actively seeking such information about schools. Many parents are complacent and believe the propaganda school officials tell them. This suggests a need for additional remedies that will induce parents to want valid information about their local schools. Parents (and taxpayers) would surely be alarmed at the degradation of their schools if they knew the truth. There are several ways to induce them to seek out this information. One is to point out the many scandals that have occurred in K­–12 education systems across the country. The education system is rife with conflicts-of-interest, corruption, and a lack of accountability. Reformers should identify these problems and publicize them. Bad schools can be sued, and the notoriety of the lawsuits can garner attention.

On the positive side, schools can advertise using honest and sobering statistics. Those who homeschool can play a role by providing information to their neighbors, on the Internet, and through the homeschooling grapevine. They can encourage other parents to be part-time homeschoolers by, at minimum, having their children tested independently of any school. Knowledge of those test results can spur competition as “word gets around.”

Reformers can publicize new methods and best practices, such as online self-paced instruction, in print and digital forums, spreading new educational developments to every part of the globe.

The beauty of informational choice is that it doesn’t cost much. Private organizations can do it. Responsible operators of schools and other educational services also have an interest in providing this valuable consumer information through the use of honest and aggressive marketing.

The only question that remains: Who will step forward to get this started?

Anderson (david.anderson@asoraeducation.com) is a senior fellow for education reform at The Heartland Institute.