School Choice: At the Buffet Without an Appetite

By MatTehCat | The Cat's Mewsings | 1 Mar 2023

Over the past year, much has been said about the need for school choice. A significant portion of this conversation emanates from the fact that test scores fell precipitously as a result of school closures during the COVID-19 shutdowns and online learning. I have written previously that, when you take a closer look at these effects, they are not the result of school closures or online learning, per se. Rather, they are caused by how both students and parents behaved and acted when there was only online learning or schools were shut down.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders has recently proposed a new plan to resolve some of the educational deficits purportedly caused by school closures and online learning. A school choice, voucher system, is one of the key parts of the bill that Sarah has introduced. Since this plan could serve as a blueprint for other states going forward, I think it would be prudent to examine the claims made about the benefits of school choice.

I will preface this examination by saying that I do support school choice. However, I will also be the first to say that I do not think it is a solution in itself. The main claim that I think needs to be wrestled with is that school choice will improve academic results. Fox News makes this claim, and they provide a hyperlink to support their claim, but it is a faulty hyperlink; there’s no source there. Thus, we cannot actually assess the evidence that they used to make that claim.

However, there is some evidence from the earlier 00s that suggests the exact opposite. Parental preference for academic quality seems to be a determining factor for whether school choice can benefit a child. Still, there is seemingly little evidence that sending a student to a better school will benefit a student along traditional measures of academic achievement. There are studies that find positive benefits when there’s a school choice option, but it’s not clear whether this is the result of having chosen a different school or if this was the school’s effect on the child; because the sample can be skewed towards those who want a better education, that desire to learn may bias the observed effect of choosing a different school.

Underlying group, cultural, or religious variables, for example, mediate whether a school choice option is taken or refused. If a family from a particular cultural, ethnic, racial, or religious group does not value academic achievement, quality, or outcome, for example, and they are given the option to choose a different school for their child, they may refuse that choice or benefit very little from having made the choice. Importantly, students who were not high academic achievers in their previous school may not benefit from a school choice option either. In other words, just because you go to a different school does not mean you will benefit from that school’s program, especially if you are incapable of benefiting from their program. The positive academic benefits purported to come from school choice seem to be moot.

There do seem to be some positive disciplinary benefits from school choice programs, and students who go to better schools seem to commit fewer crimes. Yet I would still take these findings with a grain of salt. Secondly, there does seem to be some evidence that school choice incentivizes competition between schools that leads to better academic outcomes, but I do not think this would really resolve the root problem, specifically because, even as the authors acknowledge, the effect observed in the cited paper was environment dependent.  

While Sarah’s plan seems to be great for teachers, for students, it is not clear if there will be any positive effects. I recently wrote about the reality of group differences, and these group differences would seem to explain the equivocal positive effect of school choice options. To reiterate, a trait cannot be the target of selection or variation unless that trait is expressible or expressed.  I.e., a culture of people who value education may be more likely to benefit from school choice programs than those who do not. Personality differences between students may also impact the purported positive effect of school choice programs. Differences in general intelligence could also be an underlying variable that mediates the purported positive effects of school choice programs. In fact, it is this variable that I suggest could cause compounding effects that lead to exponentially lower test scores or academic outcomes in the United States. As I’ve stated before: “There’s no way to improve the culture, the institutions, or the children unless the people are capable of improving themselves, and they are not and will not be able to if [degenerative effects] continue to compound as I predict they will.” As was noted from post-COVID test scores, “Scores for all students fell, while scores for the most at-risk students fell the most. Students with more access to educational resources such as a quiet space, technology conducive to learning, and someone to help them scored higher than those who did not. Higher-performing students also understood when they were struggling more than lower-performing students and sought help to resolve their difficulties.” The students that did not have test scores that were as low as their peers' after COVID effectively created niches for themselves that insulated them from the negative effects of school closures or online learning.

Parents also played a role in this process. Parents that listened to their child’s needs, provided them with the materials they needed to be educated, or were able to read and apply materials they read to improve their child’s education played an essential role in insulating their child from the negative effect of COVID measures. Effectively, if a parent was educated, intelligent, and nurturing, the child could have inherited these qualities, protecting the child from the negative effects associated with school closures or online learning. Some of these qualities are emergent aspects of the parent’s psychology, neurology, and thus biology, the latter of which is the product of ontogenetic and evolutionary processes. Without an understanding and recognition of how these processes and biology play a role in the educational capacities of students, improvements will be more difficult to achieve. What you will get is a Sisyphean task.

In short: the positive effects of school choice options are equivocal or are bound to be equivocal because the beneficial effects from an educational institution are not generally top-down. Rather, the beneficial effects received from an educational institution are mostly bottom-up. Interactions between the student, parent, and institution result in positive educational outcomes for the student that compound from previous positive educational experiences, likely induced by parent-child interactions.

This leaves school choice options at a crossroads. While I do support school choice, specifically homeschooling, the positive effects of a school choice option likely will not be there for people who expect the school to do the majority of the work for their child. I.e., the best teachers, curriculum, textbooks, newest technology, and largest libraries cannot benefit a child that is incapable of making use of them. It does not matter how much I teach my dog the alphabet, he lacks the capacities to learn, apply, and iterate upon it.

This leads to one of the critiques I noticed of the school choice option: schools can still exclude students. This may upset parents, and they may feel that their child is capable of learning from their desired institution, but that institution may feel that the child is not. Under these circumstances, the school choice option is a choice in name only.

Part of this can be resolved by the recognition that people differ from each other and groups differ from each other. Groups and people both create niches that best reflect environments that are conducive to their particular fitness. If a group or an individual is not good at solving complex problems, they likely will not succeed in an environment that requires them to solve complex problems, nor will they move towards or create niches that require them to solve complex problems. Instead, some of these people may free-ride off those who do solve complex problems for them. Under these circumstances, it is necessary to remove or diminish the benefits of free-riding or the incentive to free-ride. Still, if they cannot even create a niche that is conducive to their fitness or potentially conducive to their fitness, it is not clear whether top-down support would be the best option for them. A change in an educational institution wouldn’t resolve their problem.

Existentially, this means that personal responsibility or collective responsibility are necessary qualities of a virtuous individual or group. If the student is not taking responsibility for his educational attainment, or a parent neglects his child’s educational attainment, how can it be the school’s responsibility to do for the student and parent that which neither will do for themselves or what the parent will not do for his child? This is a cultural issue, to be sure, but to continue the theme, it is also an issue rooted in the psychology of the individual and population that is irresponsible and, thus, it is rooted in the biology of the irresponsible individual and population. If an individual or group generally lacks the personality facets that constitute the quality of Responsibility, then they will not be capable of benefiting from a school choice option. I for one do not think this is a common quality amongst American Institutions or their people.

In closing, just because you give someone the tools or resources they need to improve themselves does not mean they will improve themselves. Simply going to another school may not resolve the issues a child or parent is experiencing, with respect to educational attainment. Incentivizing more educated or better teaching through increased pay likely won’t even resolve the issues students are facing. It’s not really a top-down issue. And, because people create niches based on underlying behavioral, psychological, and biological qualities, problems may follow large groups of students wherever they go. Expecting this to be the salve that improves the educational attainment of students is putting the cart before the horse; the students and parents must ultimately be the vehicles for improved educational outcomes themselves.

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The Cat's Mewsings
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