Spoiled for choice?

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

Would you rather choose where to send your child to school or have the decision made for you based on where you live? Many parents would rather choose, in the belief that with choice comes the chance of getting a better education for their child. But results from PISA find that education systems do not necessarily benefit as a result.

As this month’s PISA in Focus explains, where parents can choose the school that their children attend, socio-economically disadvantaged parents can end up choosing the best school among a more limited set of choices than more affluent parents; as a result, the benefits of school choice may not accrue to the same extent to disadvantaged students as to their more advantaged peers. And if affluent families are more likely to opt out of the neighbourhood school than poorer residents of the same area, competition may increase socio-economic segregation in schools.

To understand how school choice works in practice, PISA asked parents to rate the importance of different criteria for choosing a school for their children, from “not important at all” to “very important”. Among the list of 11 possible criteria given to parents, one is directly related to the quality of teaching and learning (“The academic achievements of students in the school are high”), but only a minority of parents rated this as “very important” (except in Korea, where 50% of parents did).

Three of the criteria for school choice listed in the parent questionnaire are related to direct or indirect monetary costs (“the school is a short distance from home”; “expenses are low”; “the school has financial aid available”). For more affluent parents, these cost-related factors weigh less than the quality of instruction in their choice of schools, as shown by the proportion of parents who rate the different criteria as “very important”. But in 10 out of the 11 countries and economies that distributed the parent questionnaire, disadvantaged parents tend to choose their children’s school as much on the basis of cost-related factors as on the quality of instruction. These data therefore suggest that parents of different socio-economic status do not seek the same information about schools before choosing one; and even if they have information about the quality of instruction, it may not be the deciding factor.

PISA results also show that, on average across countries, school competition is not related to better mathematics performance among students. In systems where almost all 15-year-olds attend schools that compete for enrolment, average performance is similar to that in systems where school competition is the exception.

What this means is that school choice may actually spoil some of the intended benefits of competition, such as greater innovation in education and a better match between students’ needs and interests and what schools offer, by reinforcing social inequities at the same time.

PISA 2012 Findings
PISA in Focus No. 42 : When is competition between schools beneficial?
OECD PISA for Parents Facebook page
Photo credit: Set of colorful lockers  / @Shutterstock 

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