How to Rate Schools by Educational Choice

by James A. Bacon

An increasing number of people across the ideological spectrum are coming to the conclusion that “school choice” is a desirable goal of educational reform. The trick is defining what constitutes “choice.” Conservatives typically think of private schools, charter schools, homeschooling and vouchers. But there are many other measures, as a new report by the Brookings Institution makes clear.

In “The Education Choice and Competition Index: Background and Results 2011,” Brookings scholar Grover J. Whitehurst has developed an index based upon 12 indicators, which takes the view that school choice can be a meaningful strategy for driving positive change within public school systems. His measures include:

  1. Availability of alternate schools, such as charter schools, magnet schools, denominational schools and private schools. Schools vary by curriculum, teacher workforce, parental involvement, length of school day and year, school autonomy, quality of facilities and per-pupil budgets. “In economic theory, competition produces efficient markets. Competition on the features of schooling can only occur to the extent that there is both choice of schools and variation in features.”
  2. Policies on virtual education. “Under current K-12 models of virtual education, a state or, more typically, the local school district is able to determine whether the virtual schooling meets its standards and is acceptable as a credit towards graduation. At the local district level, this places the bureaucracy that may be most disrupted by the introduction of virtual education in the position of gatekeeper.”
  3. Funding follows students. “A primary driver of competition among schools is the loss or gain of funding that comes from changes in enrollment. A school that is unpopular with students and losing enrollment should lose funding. Likewise, a popular school should gain funding as it attracts more students.” Many schools systems function according to the opposite principle.
  4. Restructuring or closing unpopular schools. “Changes in student-based funding may not be immediately obvious or consequential to staff, whereas the prospect that the school will be closed or restructured if it continues to decline in popularity is hard to ignore.”
  5. Assignment mechanism. “The antithesis of choice is an assignment mechanism based on residence, with little or no chance of parents being able to enroll their child in a school other than the one in their neighborhood. In contrast, the paragon of assignment systems is one in which students are assigned to schools through an application process in which parents express their preferences and those preferences are maximized.”
  6. Application. “The ideal [application] process has a common application for all public schools within a district’s boundaries, including charter schools.”
  7. Comparable standards and assessments. “Common standards and assessments provide transparency for choice and allow schools to be compared on a common metric.”
  8. Gain scores. “Information presented to parents as a basis for judging school performance should include student achievement gains based on longitudinal data on academic growth of individual students.” In other words, schools should be rated on their ability to add educational value, not their ability to select the best students.
  9. Accessible online information. “Information about the choice process and school performance data should be easily accessible on a district website, presented clearly, permit side-by-side comparisons of schools, and be sufficiently complete that there isn’t a population of ‘in the know’ parents.”
  10. Additional performance data. “Best practice for districts includes the provision of additional information on such things as student and teacher absentee rates, measures of parental satisfaction, and course offerings. Also important in a system of open enrollment is information on school popularity as revealed through the ratio of applications to slots. Publishing popularity scores on schools in districts that have open enrollment plans could, we believe, have a significant influence on school leaders at both the building and district levels.”
  11. Transportation. “An ideal choice system is one in which students are provided transportation to any school of their choosing within district borders on the same terms as for the neighborhood school.”
  12. School quality. “School choice is a sham if all schools are low performing. In that scenario little competition is likely to result.”

The Index ranks 25 large school districts around the country, including Fairfax County’s, based on these indicators. Receiving “B” ratings, New York City and Chicago schools enjoy the highest rankings for educational choice. Fairfax County rates 8th, with a “C+” rating. You can view the details of the rankings here.

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2 responses to “How to Rate Schools by Educational Choice”

  1. I’m 100% in favor of this approach. As long as all school providers need to abide by the same rules in terms of availability to all comers and they have to meet the same curricula and assessment standards.. I support it.

    I especially am hopeful that the current debate over how much virtually schooling should cost – will help to identify how much pure teaching should cost and what the “extras” are at the public schools.. to include … transportation, cafeterias, “electives” and sports…etc

    We’re going to find out that in Virginia – much of local funding which is usually equal to or more than the State share – goes …NOT for core academic purposes but for things that are very popular and much in demand by parents… but are those things legitimate costs for all taxpayers?

  2. Groveton Avatar

    Fairfax County got zeroes in “assignment mechanism” and “application”.

    I guess the authors of this study think that parents should be able to send their kids to any school in the district – regardless of where they live. Parents complete an application and the kids go to the school that best meets the parents’ educational preferences.

    So, we have 175,000 kids roaming around Fairfax County during the morning rush hour and in the afternoon?

    That would certainly help traffic congestion.

    But, how would the kiddies get to schools all across the county?

    “An ideal choice system is one in which students are provided transportation to any school of their choosing within district borders on the same terms as for the neighborhood school.”

    Hovercraft? Monorail? Tele-transportation?

    This is yet another one of those zany ideas which sound sort of good at first reading but end being ridiculous.

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