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Thompson: The Unsurprising Limits of School Choice in New Orleans & Elsewhere

Douglas Harris and Matthew Larson, in What Schools Do Families Want (and Why?) begin their paper, the first in a series of studies on the New Orleans experiment in choice, by explaining that it could be “the rare policy that increases both average student outcomes and the equity of outcomes at the same time, a win-win situation. Alternatively, choice may do more harm than good.”

Pre-Katrina, before the experiment in market-driven school improvement, the majority of students already attended schools other than their neighborhood schools. As Harris and Larson note, the widespread availability of choice should raise questions about its power to drive school improvement. Even so, some commentators have expressed shock at their study’s prime conclusion, the lowest income families “weigh academic outcomes somewhat less than higher-income families.” Harris and Larsen find:    

While very-low-income families also have greater access to schools with high average test scores, they are less likely to choose schools with high test scores. This is partly because their incomes and practical considerations prevent them from doing so. Being close to home, having siblings in the same school, and including extended school days are all more important to very-low-income families than other families. Also, compared with other New Orleans families in the public school system, very-low-income families have weaker preferences for SPS (School Performance Score) and stronger preferences in high school for band and football. 

I doubt that many teachers were surprised by the study’s findings. Other than true believers in competition-driven improvement of anything and everything, I wonder if how policy-makers with an awareness of poverty's constraints could have anticipated other conclusions.

It should not be a secret that poor families must juggle a range of challenges. In my experience, the two main causes of educational underperformance are cancer and heart disease. Given our crazy quilt of health coverage, however, it should be no surprise that a variety of physical and mental health ailments combine to trap people in environments where they have no real choices.

Moreover, poor parents often juggle a number of low-paid jobs that require them to work unpredictable schedules. They and their older children often face an impossible task of getting the kids off to their different schools.  And, of course, many schools (especially choice schools) have an expectation that few neighborhood secondary schools could dream of – insisting that students will not be tardy and/or not be excessively absent.

In my experience, most inner city families have gone through several rounds of experimenting with their choice options. Perhaps they provide schools with a false address or send their children off to live with relatives in a more affluent neighborhood, bringing them home on the weekends. In most cases, some of the kids flourish in higher-performing schools, as some of their siblings struggle with the academic and/or behavioral standards of choice schools.

Often, a child excels in the lower-poverty school until reaching middle school, and then he temporarily gives into peer pressure or teen hormones and finds himself unwelcome in the higher-performing school. Then, almost like clockwork, he outgrows his disruptive phase and fits back into the classroom cultures of an orderly school. One problem with this predictable pattern is that it makes the mom’s job even more complicated as she has to get her children, who are on diverse levels chronologically, emotionally, and academically, off to the variety of schools that are the best fit for their needs.  

Of course, the New Orleans findings are consistent with the increased segregation caused by choice in the age of "the Big Sort" in Chicago and New York City. The only surprise is that reformers could have expected a different outcome. -JT(@drjohnthompson)   


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