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Parents Will Always Choose The Better School, Right?

Rick Green

January 12, 2011

One of the more impressive achievements in Hartford over the last few years has been creation of a system that allows parents to choose whatever school in the city they want for their child.

Research has clearly linked parental choice with improving schools. It's a money-follows-the-child philosophy that we should be adopting across the state. Still, it isn't easy or cheap to close failing schools and open or expand others.

All along there has been the assumption that parents will migrate to a higher-achieving school. The idea is that good schools will attract students and flourish and failing schools will lose enrollment and close.

Sometimes, however, reform moves faster than parents and families.

Researchers tracking education reform in Hartford were surprised when they stumbled upon a curious development at some of the city's lowest peforming schools.

In a number of these schools, the parents remained strongly supportive of their failing school. In education jargon, they were not "voting with their feet" and asking to attend a different school.

"We saw some schools that were low performing and had a very high parent satisfaction rate,'' said Sarah Yatsko, a researcher with the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. "You do have parents who are actively saying this is the school I want my child to go to ... You want parents to choose the schools that are high-performing."

Yatsko and Paul Hill, director of the center, spoke Tuesday evening at the Hartford Public Library about their ongoing research study of Hartford and six other urban school districts that have adopted so-called a "portfolio reform strategy,'' one that features a variety of schools and management philosophies. Hill and Yatsko heaped deserved praise on Hartford, though they noted parents' dedication to failing schools.

"We see this in other school districts around the country,'' said Sarah Yatsko, a researcher with the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. "You like your teachers. You get invested in the school."

Hill said one way to nudge parents along was to tell them their failing school was closing. "You do want to increase enrollment in good schools and decrease enrollment in bad schools,'' he said.

Hartford Superintendent of Schools Stephen Adamowski told me the real issue is educating parents - about test scores, teacher quality and school programs - so they can make an informed decision. He said once parents learn, they begin to make better choices.

"Parents are very much aware of the level of achievement at their school,'' he said. "They will always choose first for achievement - once they know about it. A parent that chooses a school is much more committed to a school and you see it in performance."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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