Want to close the opportunity gap? Presentation matters.

December 3, 2018 BY Autumn Miller

New survey results reveal that displaying school information to parents in different ways affects what schools they choose for their children.

One of the promises of school choice is that the freedom it creates is supposed to benefit all families, opening up new pathways for underserved or disadvantaged groups. But historically, that hasn’t always been the case.

In a new paper on school choice participation, authors at Mathematica Policy Research have confirmed past research shows “parents with higher levels of educational attainment are more likely than their less educated peers to choose an alternative to the neighborhood school for their children.” Additionally, “on average, low-income parents had less objective knowledge about schools than higher-income parents.” Essentially, in choice environments, low-income, less educated families have not been exercising their choice rights at the same rate as more affluent families.

Perhaps because of these trends, participation rates remain a concern today at some of the nation’s largest urban districts. As district leaders restructure enrollment policy around choice, many are gauging program success by measuring:

  1. Are low-income, minorities, and diverse families participating?
  2. If so, what does that level of participation look like? If those groups are choosing low-performing schools en masse, instead of the “better” options that are available, why? Is it because they’re not aware options outside neighborhood schools exist? Or is it because the choice process is too time-consuming or complex to navigate? Or, perhaps most alarmingly, because these families aren’t even trying to get into higher performing schools because they are misguidedly assuming they don’t stand a chance?

In compiling past studies, the Mathematica paper shows how participation rates have varied across socioeconomic factors. Income is one factor: data that examined parents’ rankings of their top school choices “found that the preference for a school with high test scores increased with family income.” Social networks are another: low-income families are “more likely to choose lower-performing schools because they tend to have greater social ties with families using lower-performing schools.” Additionally, “the social circles of more highly educated parents are more likely to include professionals who are knowledgeable about the system.”

In light of these differences, for school choice to truly do its part in closing the opportunity gap, how and why parents make decisions about schools should be studied. That’s where information architecture comes in.

The Mathematic paper focuses on school finders — which sometimes are how parents pick their schools. Gaining popularity in choice areas, school finders are a one-stop online resource that essentially allow families to “shop” for a school. They’re also powerful tools for equity as they can help to remove the knowledge, language, resource, or time barriers that prevent many families from participating in school choice.

With a new sample of 3,500 low-income parents of school-aged children, the Mathematic paper also provides some key answers to why parents pick certain schools. Researchers have discovered that within a school finder portal, the way information is presented makes a difference on which schools are selected. And, “a small nudge” (by way of information design) can “induce meaningful change in the types of schools selected.”

The nudges that were found to have the most profound impact include:

  • “Changing the default sort order from distance-from-home to academic performance resulted in parents choosing schools with higher academic performance.”
  • “Using icons to represent data, instead of graphs or just numbers, or presenting concise summaries instead of detailed displays, also led parents to choose schools with higher academic performance.”
  • “Using simplified letter grades had a greater influence on parents’ school ratings than performance index ratings, proficiency percentages, and achievement labels; parents who viewed the letter grade format perceived greater differences between schools than those who viewed the other formats.”
  • Respondents prioritized parent survey ratings and comments to government ratings.

Seemingly minor details, the study suggests, can have a major implications on minority groups. We’ve seen this at SchoolMint, as we’ve worked with many of the pioneers who were first to employ school finders. By accounting for localized populations and their unique challenge barriers in the design phase, districts like Oakland USD have used SchoolFinder to achieve record-setting levels of participation. The power of tools like SchoolFinder is real. But so to is the responsibility.