EdNavigator Insight #4: It’s hard for families to discern differences in quality among schools.

This week we’re sharing some of the insights we’ve gained through our work at EdNavigator, helping families with schools in New Orleans over the past year. Here’s what we’ve covered so far:

Insight #4: It’s hard for families to discern differences in quality among schools

One of the reasons we chose New Orleans as our pilot site was because it gives families substantial choice in which school their kids attend. This winter, we supported about 75 parents of rising kindergartners in choosing schools and navigating the OneApp enrollment system, often for the first time. They had at their disposal a pile of information, including school report cards from the state and a 175-page Parent’s Guide to Public Schools with detailed information on local schools.

Even so, we found that parents had a hard time differentiating between their school options. The sheer amount of information can be overwhelming and it isn’t easy to compare schools side-by-side. Although the school grades and performance scores from the state provide useful indicators, they are based primarily on the proportion of students who demonstrate proficiency rather than how much those students grow academically– and our families tend to care more about the latter (growth) than the former.

For them, a C-rated school where many students are growing significantly (just not enough to reach full proficiency) may be preferable to a B-rated school where many students perform at the proficient level, but show little growth. Finally, the data available to families doesn’t tell them much about a school’s culture, discipline philosophy, or responsiveness to parents and the community, all of which are important considerations when choosing a school.

Without support, parents tend to make decisions based on schools’ reputations in the community. That often meant that they’d overlook newer or lesser-known schools with quality programs, or focus narrowly on high-demand schools where they had a slim chance of getting a seat.

With our families, we focused on helping them generate a shortlist of solid choices and getting their application completed by the main deadline. When they get some help, they feel better about the process; on our survey of families this summer, 85% of those who received support from us strongly agreed or agreed that they felt confident choosing a school and using OneApp, compared to 53% of those who did not get support.*

Implications?  For states, don’t use ESSA as an opportunity to pull a California and turn your school report cards into Rubik’s Cubes.  Families, not system insiders, are your most important audience. We’ve shared specific thoughts on how to do this in another post. For communities, don’t build systems predicated on parental choice and neglect to invest in helping parents choose.  It’s like baking bread and leaving out the yeast.  You won’t be happy with the result.

That’s it for today. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about our biggest lesson learned of all: That no plan for school reform—from the most traditional to the most disruptive—will work if it doesn’t work for families.

* Grain of salt: The survey was small (N=48) and relatively informal. But still.


Ariela Rozman, Timothy Daly and David Keeling are Founding Partners of EdNavigator (@ednavigate), a New Orleans-based nonprofit organization that helps families give their kids a great education. www.ednavigator.com

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