What PISA tells us about school choice and equity

By Andreas Schleicher

Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Education systems in many countries today are grappling with a profoundly important question: how can we provide parents with the flexibility to choose their child’s school, while still ensuring quality, equity and coherence in our school systems?

Supporters of school choice have argued that school choice can improve competition between schools, thereby stimulating more efficient and innovative teaching practices. Detractors, meanwhile, have raised concerns that school choice could exacerbate existing inequalities in education, and further segregate students according to their ability or socio-economic status. The debate over school choice is often described in polarised, absolutist terms, but results from PISA show that the issue isn’t as binary as it may seem – and that, with the right mix of policies, education systems can reconcile choice with equity.

Our new report, Balancing School Choice and Equity: An International Perspective Based on PISA, takes a closer look at the effect of school choice policies on school segregation and equity. It also identifies steps that policy makers can take to ensure that school choice policies do not exacerbate inequities between advantaged and disadvantaged students, or high and low achievers.

Our report finds that private schooling increased in only a limited number of countries that participated in PISA from 2000 to 2015; but compared with 15 years earlier, students in 2015 were less frequently allocated to schools according to their residence. The report also finds that social segregation increased over this time period in areas where schools relied less on students’ home addresses to determine enrolment. A greater number of schools also reported in 2015 that they considered prior academic achievements in admissions, suggesting an increase in sorting by ability.

School choice will only generate the anticipated benefits when the choice is real, relevant and meaningful.

This, in turn, may have a negative impact on both equity and, in some cases, the general performance of education systems. As the report notes, an increase in the isolation of high achievers from other students is associated with lower PISA scores amongst socio-economically disadvantaged students, with no significant impact on advantaged students. Education systems may be impacted more broadly if the harm that low achievers experience from being concentrated with other low achievers outweighs the benefits that high achievers could enjoy from being grouped together. In fact, previous research suggests that such stratification does not lead to positive outputs – even for the brightest kids.

So, what does this mean for school choice policy? The more flexibility there is in a school system, the stronger public policy needs to be. Successful choice-based systems have carefully designed checks and balances that prevent choice from leading to inequity and segregation. While greater school autonomy, decentralisation and a more demand-driven school system seek to devolve decision making to the frontline, central authorities need to maintain a strategic vision and clear guidelines for education, and offer meaningful feedback to local school networks and individual schools.

Policies must also ensure that all parents can exercise their right to choose the school of their preference. For government and schools, that means developing their relationships with parents and local communities, and helping parents make informed decisions. Policies should provide targeted support to disadvantaged families, in particular, through both financial assistance and adequate public transportation. In order to avoid unfair competition between public and private schools, all publicly funded providers should be required to adhere to the same regulations on tuition and admissions policies.

Ultimately, school choice will only generate the anticipated benefits when the choice is real, relevant and meaningful – when parents can choose an important aspect of their child’s education, such as the pedagogical approaches used to teach them. School choice, in and of itself, neither assures nor undermines the quality of education. What matters are smart policies that maximise the benefits of choice while minimising the risks, and establishing a level playing field for all providers to contribute to the school system.

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