How Parents Can Find Out What They Need to Know in an Era of School Choice


(U.S. News & World Report)

A teacher meeting with a parent and her child in a classroom

Photo by Digital Vision/Getty Images

by Andrew McEachin and Laura S. Hamilton

February 21, 2017

During her confirmation hearings, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos argued in favor of expanding school choice, saying parents should be empowered to determine which schools will meet their children's needs. It was a familiar position for the longtime school choice activist who was confirmed last week only after the vice president cast the tiebreaking vote in the Senate.

Few would argue against a parent knowing best, but the ability to make an informed choice in any context requires that parents or other family members have access to detailed information about the quality of school instruction, services and the overall school climate. This also means that schools need a valid, reliable and transparent system of measuring and collecting information on school performance, and a mechanism for making that information accessible and understandable to families.

What do parents or other family members need to know about school performance to help them identify the right school for their child? And how could these measures of school performance be incorporated into a choice-based system?

Although families differ on the information they most value, districts and states could do a better job providing parents with a holistic picture of their educational options. While federal law requires schools and districts to provide parents with information about their schools, how the information is provided (such as websites, report cards, pamphlets) and what is included varies dramatically. Much of the following information is already measured by schools and districts — and could help families make better choices:

  • Student achievement. Families should have access to high-quality, rigorous assessments of student achievement in a broad range of subjects. These assessments should measure and report students' “proficiency,” comparing students' accumulated knowledge and skills against a performance benchmark, and “growth,” comparing students' current accumulated knowledge and skills to those in previous school years.
  • Academic attainment. They should have access to information about whether students are generally promoted from grade to grade in the expected time frames, to high school graduation rates, and to postsecondary achievements of graduates.
  • High-quality educational opportunities. They should be able to find out whether schools provide, and ensure equal access to, special programs such as those concentrated on science, technology engineering and math, or STEM; advanced curriculum such as AP classes or an international baccalaureate diploma; and extracurricular opportunities such as sports and performing arts.
  • Provision of services. Information about services for students with special needs should be readily available.
  • School climate. They should have access to information about the overall school climate, including school safety; parent, teacher and student satisfaction; and student engagement.

Many traditional public school systems already collect this information as part of state and federal accountability systems and report them primarily on school and district websites and/or school report cards. Some systems, like New York City's, regularly implement surveys to measure parent and student satisfaction. North Carolina (PDF) regularly administers a survey to teachers and principals to measure school climate.

The difficulty is determining who will be responsible for collecting and analyzing this information and how to deliver it in a format that can be easily understood by families with diverse backgrounds. In school systems that include charter schools and other schools of choice, the “who” should be the authorizing organization (such as the school district or state department of education). The “how” should be determined by a robust set of decision-makers, including parents from the local communities, educators, policymakers and researchers.

The value of having school-specific information widely available should be recognized in any education system, but it is especially important in a choice-heavy design. Parents may be better positioned to make decisions about their children's education, but schools and districts can — and should — do more to put parents in the best position possible to ensure their children's success.

Andrew McEachin is a policy researcher and Laura S. Hamilton is associate director of RAND Education at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

This commentary originally appeared on U.S. News & World Report on February 17, 2017. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.