Study of How DC Parents Rank Schools Offers Signals for Better Policy

Jun 15, 2016

A new Mathematica Policy Research study of how parents in Washington, DC, rank schools offers insights that could lead to better policies governing school choice. It could also help parents make decisions to improve their children’s educational outcomes. The study is detailed in a new policy brief and working paper.

Mathematica researchers analyzed more than 20,000 rank-ordered lists from the city’s 2014 school lottery to learn what parents value in choosing schools. The researchers found that, although parents generally prefer schools close to home, they also place significant weight on the academic performance of the school and the characteristics of its students, including their race and income. 

“Access to school choice data gives us the potential to build policy simulations and develop decision-making tools using parental feedback. This type of data mining has reach far beyond the District of Columbia, particularly for other cities with a robust and centralized education application system,” said Steven Glazerman, senior fellow and project director at Mathematica.

Diversity affects choice 

According to one of the study’s key findings, parents generally place greater value on schools with a high percentage of students of the same race/ethnicity as their child—but only if their child would otherwise be in the smallest minority at school. If their child won’t be in the smallest minority, parents are less concerned about—and, in fact, supportive of—schools with a more diverse student body.

For example, typical middle school parents in DC would be willing to send their child half a mile farther to attend a school that had 50 percent (rather than 40 percent) of students of the same race/ethnicity as their own child. But if the choice were between a pair of schools with 10 versus 20 percent of students of the child’s own race/ethnicity, parents would be willing to send the child over two miles farther to avoid being in the smaller minority.

School choice in DC  

Potential impact of study

With grant support from the Walton Family Foundation, Mathematica used the data to simulate various school choice policies and to assess how the policies might affect enrollment patterns. 

For education administrators and policymakers, these simulations can be used to better understand how to design effective policies on school choice. Policies based on the data may even “nudge” parents toward choices that produce good outcomes—such as better academic performance; more disadvantaged students enrolling in high quality schools; and more integration of schools by race, ethnicity, and social class. 

Learn more about this project and other Mathematica education research.


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