In the School Choice Era, Making Shopping for Schools Easier

Prepared for
U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences
school choice shopping cart

Shopping for Schools Is Hard

As school choice initiatives have increased options for students and their families, making effective choices has become more challenging. Even though the technology for presenting information is rapidly evolving, the amount of information and its complexity are growing even more quickly and can be overwhelming, even for sophisticated parents and students. For those with limited education or English language skills, difficulties digesting information about school choices can put the most vulnerable students at even more of a disadvantage.

Mathematica Is Helping

This project is running an experiment to learn how best to select and present school choice data so that it is easy to use and understand and leads to smart choices. In addition, policymakers in charge of centralized school lottery systems have no systematic guidance on how to provide usable, actionable information to families. Our aim is to conduct a carefully controlled experiment to generate the kind of evidence needed to provide this guidance.

Cutting-Edge Methods Will Identify Best Ways to Present Information

The project includes the following:

  • A design that allows the study team to vary many factors simultaneously and systematically. The design will allow the team to examine 72 different ways of displaying school choice information.
  • Analysis of information or “choice architecture”—the way choices are presented, and the impact of presentation on decisionmaking. Because information overload can be a problem, how information is structured and presented matters. We will examine how to structure information for consumers to produce the greatest levels of usability and comprehension, and to maximize the chance that parents select the best schools for their children.
  • Development of practical guide for school districts. The most important product from the study will be a practical guide for districts and other entities (cities or counties, for example) that are responsible for presenting school choice information to parents and students. The guide will translate the experimental research findings into evidence-based principles for designing effective displays of school choice information.

Mathematica is collaborating on this study with Jon Valant and Douglas Harris of Tulane University and with Tembo, Inc., a design and analytics firm that is producing the information displays to be tested.