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Bruno: If Rich Parents Can't Choose Schools Well, How Can Anybody?

SidwellfriendsIs the willingness of wealthy parents to spend gobs of money on elite private schools evidence that we should be spending more on traditional public schools? RiShawn Biddle doesn't think so and gives several reasons to justify his skepticism. In the process, though, he ends up seriously undercutting the case for school choice and more-intensive data gathering.

I'm as doubtful as Biddle that the high tuition at elite private schools is justified by school quality per se; it wouldn't take a high-quality school to enroll a bunch of kids from extremely wealthy families and then get them off to college. Still, on Biddle's own account this is tantamount to saying that rich parents are largely insensitive to school quality and, moreover, that when rich parents exercise school choice, they do so poorly. And this is despite the fact that the wealthiest parents are probably better informed than their less affluent counterparts.

And note that it doesn't really help to say, as he does, that the lack of "high quality" (i.e., testing) data on the elite schools makes rich parents less informed. After all, such information is available for many other schools they might choose, and yet many parents apparently choose to ignore it. This doesn't point to the need for more testing data so much as is points to the fact that reformers care about such data more than parents do.

Biddle is exactly right that when parents pony up for tuition at Sidwell Friends they're not paying for the education so much as they're paying for things like the ability to signal social status. If the wealthiest families don't choose schools exclusively - or even primarily - on the basis of educational quality, however, then why should we expect anything different in the case of less fortunate families?

Elite private school practices - high costs, small classes, broad curriculum - threaten much of the reform agenda, but in their defensiveness reformers often try to have it both ways. If wealthy parents choose schools poorly, then the case for expanding school choice is undermined. On the other hand if wealthy parents choose schools well, then the criteria by which reformers judge school quality are probably too narrow.

I'm not necessarily averse to proposals to judge school quality or expand school choice, but it does seem to me that we haven't carefully thought through how to do either. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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But is there not an argument that parent choice - in and of itself - is an inherent good?

I agree a lot of people won't make good choices. Pepsi vs. Coke- probably both bad choices. But we're not going to outlaw colas, or say there can only be one, are we?

I also agree that judging schools primarily by their students results on annual tests is not so effective. But the good news, as you note, is parents do a pretty good job of ignoring weak data.

Lastly you observe that "Elite private school practices - high costs.. threaten the reform agenda.

Not certain if Mike Bloomberg is a reformer in your book, but he's doubled (per capita) spending on public schools here in Gotham in the last ten years. We're up to $24k per kid, excluding pension costs. Not the 40K of the top private schools, but plenty costly in most parts of the world.

Matthew -

I think there's certainly an argument to be made about choice as an end in itself, but it's not one I put very much stock in. I don't want to go off on a tangent about the metaphysics of freedom, but suffice it to say that the process of getting my BA in philosophy made me distrust arguments about choice as inherently good.

To be clear, it's not obvious to me that rich parents are choosing badly. They're not necessarily choosing the "most effective" schools, but they may be choosing well in terms of their kids' long-term interests. I do think, however, that a lot of education reform logic *implies* that the parents must be choosing badly, and I think that highlights that reformers often have a too-narrow definition of "school quality". Test scores might be a reasonable part of such a definition, but they probably shouldn't be all of it.

Honestly I'm not familiar enough with the NYC situation to comment on it, but I certainly don't think high spending per se is likely to make much difference. But my guess is that these elite schools are spending at least some of their $40k/student on things that benefit their students in some way or another but that aren't directly related to raising student test scores. This suggests that test scores maybe shouldn't be such a high priority as they are in much of the reform agenda.

I agree, in part, with both of you. The problem is that, as I sit here typing it, I know my position would be possible to legislate. Toss out the concept of school expense for a moment.
In a perfect world, we could have a sort of teacher-reviewed parental control. Teachers are working to educate. Not for pay, for there is more money to be made outside of education (barring, of course, collegiate sports coaching). I think it’s therefore fair to say that teachers are a valid consultation where childhood education is concerned. That being said, parents have a perspective those in the industry cannot, and that is how to reach their specific child. Parent-teacher collaboration is what education needs more of. I don’t even think it’d be terribly expensive, if not cheaper, to finance. Regardless of a school’s financial background, I think this is where reform should go. Provide parents with recommendations on school choice, without tying them forcibly to a place. Drive the cost of school down as a whole by cutting out lobbyists and elite middlemen.

"But we're not going to outlaw colas, or say there can only be one, are we?"

Last I knew, we didn't spend public money on purchasing soft drinks.

The whole argument for school choice rests on the belief that parental choice is better than government choice. If parents can't make superior choices to the government's, then there's no real basis for giving parents a choice. If they want choice, they can use their own money. Otherwise, they can send their kid to a public school and accept the government's choice.

<<< The whole argument for school choice rests on the belief that parental choice is better than government choice. If parents can't make superior choices to the government's, then there's no real basis for giving parents a choice.

Not quite so. As Matthew said, there are some -- myself included -- who see choice as an inherent good. Evaluating whether "parental choice is better than government choice" begs the question: Better at what?

Matthew, it's about $22,000/student, and that does include pension costs: "For the school year 2012–13, the Department of Education’s total budget is $24.4 billion, including $4.7 billion to pay pensions and interest on Capital Plan debt."

"The New York City Department of Education consists of over 1,700 schools that serve about 1.1 million students each year."

The $40,000/year tuition at Dalton, Collegiate, Horace Mann, etc. -- amazingly -- does not cover 100% of the cost to educate each child. The "gap", as it's called, is usually in the neighborhood of $10,000. So in New York City, at least, there's a considerable difference in per-pupil spending, not a narrow one as Biddle implies. And the NYC public per-pupil figure is skewed by special ed costs--the gen-ed figure at my children's schools is more like $13,000.

I understand Biddle's point about a lack of data, but even with all the favorable connections and wealth and high IQs, given the results these schools get it's hard for me to imagine they aren't doing something right in terms of teaching.

@ Paul,

I think we agree on this; it's just that I see it from the perspective of the kid (or parent), which is my personal interest. And you're looking at the issues for the system of schools and teachers.

I agree that we parents make a lot of ineffective or inefficient choices. And that test scores are only one way - and not always the best way - to evaluate a school.

But when high SES parents put $500,000 down on a house in a well-off 'burb and take out a big mortgage, they're probably not looking at much more data than average SAT scores.

I agree that some (many?) reformers are struggling with the perception that some (many?) parents choose 'badly', in their opinion, when sending their kids to what they see as 'failing' schools.

But I don't see how one (anyone, not you) decries parents who do pull their kids out to charters, or other public or private options, when they perceive that the school is not serving their kid's needs.

@ Tim,

Thanks for the catch - my larger point is we've doubled ed spending here in Gotham in the last ten years, so if we're not at Dalton yet, I would have hoped to see a bit more improvement than our NAEP scores suggest.

Certainly teaching has a lot to do with the experience at private schools. More specifically, curriculum. An area where most reformers won't go at all.

My eldest attends what (I'm told) is one of the best public middle schools in our neighborhood, and he read and reported on all of one book (as a class) in Humanities last year. This year, I'm delighted to see that there are two required books in the reading curriculum.


My argument wasn't that parents have superior picking skills to the government.

It was that there are sometimes better fits for different kids in different places. As you have written about on your blog, not all kids belong in Algebra II.

So where the town or city can offer several choices I think parents (and kids) like the idea that they don't have to attend the one school the government says they can attend. But I was not trying to argue for vouchers (at least in this response)

"As Matthew said, there are some -- myself included -- who see choice as an inherent good."

I know. So what?

The rationale for public school is not an intended gift to parents. It's a social good. Parents are, in a sense, accidental beneficiaries.

If society can get a better value for its money by giving choice to parents, then the rationale is valid. IF they can't, then there's no argument for giving the choice to the parents. It's like saying welfare recipients are entitled to better jobs and housing because, you know, that's what they rilly rilly want.

Mind you, I don't much care either way. "Choice" will never get anywhere because it won't scale, so while I think choice proponents are wrong on the face of it, it's not something I hold a lot of energy about.

I'm just pointing out that it's simply not sufficient to argue that choice should be given to parents, because parents aren't the intended beneficiary of public education. Society is.

@Education Realist The problem, perhaps obviously, is that many parents do not see themselves as the "beneficiaries" at all. A fair number might even see their children closer to hostages. Whether I agree with a parent's choice or not, I find it difficult to suggest that parental prerogatives should be blithely dismissed. He's not my kid or yours. Society's interest is in having a well educated citizenry. It doesn't follow at all that since parent should have some say in how that's accomplished. And wouldn't schools operate more smoothly for all if the relationship wasn't coercive. You might want to send your child to a progressive school, I might want a traditional curriculum, our neighbor might want a school that focuses on art or music. And wouldn't we all like something to focus on when evaluating a school other than test scores?

BTW, let me say I think your blog is terrific, even if you've lost me on this particular thread.

@ ER,

David Labaree's analysis of the goals ogf public education and the rise of 'credentialism' is one you probably know well. So yes, there are different interests in public education that sometimes overlap, and sometimes conflict. For a long time now the politics have favored the private benefits that accrue to a (seemingly) educated person over the public good of a well-informed or technically capable citizenry that can be employed efficiently.

I'm empathetic to Labaree as I personally value a civic society. But I struggle to see - outside of some Brave New World model that I'm pretty confident neither of us supports - how you convince parents that the one solution offered by the local government is all you get.

(And like Robert, I very much enjoy your blog postings.)

Yap!!! this is true that rich parents cannot find the best school for their children. Always they want high grade schools where fees is more than another schools. but i think small and less reputed schools give more attention on kids to high reputed schools.

According to my point of view, rich parents always find the school for their kid which is so dearer....... but i think parents should choose the normal school not a high and modern school..because if there are more crowd then teachers can not give the attention to each students. Thank you for this sharing..

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