Well-Informed Parents Are Essential in the K–12 Education Marketplace

Published August 18, 2015

Considerable anecdotal and statistical information suggests the parents of K-12 schoolchildren in the United States are generally unaware of the performance levels of schools in their communities.

Data suggest this is true for all economic strata, not just low-income Americans.

Well-informed parents are essential to ensure good educational quality. This assertion is based on a fundamental principle of the discipline of information economics: Consumers need reliable information about the goods and services they seek to purchase. This is a necessary condition for a healthy marketplace.

Without the necessary information, education consumers will likely make unwise choices. The experts tell us the private and public suppliers of education will have an incentive to cut costs by reducing quality. They’ll be able to “get by” selling their “lemons” to the unsuspecting.

Consumers of K–12 education are lost in a sea of misinformation. We need to help these parent consumers wise-up, so they’ll know how to better direct their children’s education.

Disguising Failure

One reason for the absence of good consumer information is the understandable desire among school officials to make their institutions look good, even if they are underperforming.

Public schools, which enjoy a near-monopoly in K–12 education, enrolling nearly 90 percent of all students, want to maintain or increase their market share by portraying themselves positively. Toward that end, they exaggerate the children’s performance levels.

They do it both at the school level, where report cards grossly inflate student achievement, and at the state level, where official testing typically shows twice as many students are deemed proficient compared to the trusted numbers provided in the Nation’s Report Card. The Nation’s Report Card shows the findings of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and gauges academic achievement of elementary and secondary students in the United States.

Nonprofit private schools enjoy a reputation, probably not deserved, as being significantly better than public schools. Sometimes they publish information about their students’ test results to show their superiority, but they often don’t tell you for equally situated students who have similar home environments, the private schools and public schools are roughly tied. The Nation’s Report Card measured the proficiencies of 8th graders who are economically disadvantaged and found 21 percent of private school students and 20 percent of public school students are proficient in both reading and math. Statistically, that’s a dead heat.

School authorities, whether public or private, show no awareness of the conflict of interest that arises because schools possess the dual responsibilities of instruction and testing, which is the standard measure for determining a school’s success. This arrangement is traditional and well-established, so it is rarely viewed as corrupt.

Need for Honest Numbers

What can be done to ensure parents get reliable information about their children’s achievement and a school’s performance?

We need honest performance numbers for schools in every community. They are not available now because the public schools lie about their numbers while the nonprofit private schools happily bask in the sunlight emanating from the popular misconception about their so-called superiority. And for reasons not fully understood, the miniscule numbers of for-profit schools hide in the shadows, afraid to force their way into open competition with the others.

Aren’t there stakeholder groups out there who could obtain honest numbers and get the attention of parents? What about civic organizations, such as Kiwanis, which purport to work on improving K–12 education? Where are the business organizations, such as chambers of commerce or education industry trade associations? Why can’t the media and other publishers highlight these problems? And aren’t there any education entrepreneurs willing to risk their investment by using aggressive marketing based on reliable student and school achievement reports?

Each of these potential agents of change is fearful of the community reaction that could come if they were to help parents get this needed information. Shame on them.

David V. Anderson ([email protected]) is a policy advisor for The Heartland Institute. 

Image by Jose Kevo.