School (over) choice? 

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Does more equal better in the world of school choice? Or might more just mean more confusion and less certainty for the parents who must choose? 

 

School choice seems to be where this country is headed. But is creating more choice really where it’s at? 

Arguments for and against school choice writ large are generally political, but the rubber meets the road when parents actually have to select a school for their child. Offering an expanding menu of choices to parents has become a priority as supporters try to ensure that there’s something to appeal to every niche interest — and as more providers compete to offer what they claim as their own distinctive and quality offerings.  

That very choice presents an entirely different factor to consider. Even if a largely robust and fair system of school choice could be set up — and that’s a monster “if” — would parents and kids actually be able to choose better from among so many options? 

A variety of social science research —  in addition to everyday experience — suggests that someone can have too much choice. 

In 2012, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush likened shopping for a school to selecting milk in a grocery store. “You can get whole milk, 2% milk, low-fat milk, or skim milk. Organic milk and milk with extra vitamin D,” he observed. “Shouldn’t parents have that kind of choice in schools?” 

Maybe, but the array of choices in a supermarket can also drive you crazy. Twenty kinds of baby aspirin? A hundred kinds of tea? And in education, the array of choices can be daunting. Consider a 6th grader in New York City who is confronted with a catalog of middle school options that is the size of a phone book, presenting hundreds of schools and programs that are at least theoretically available. 

This is akin to what the futurist Alvin Toffler (1970) called “overchoice,” which he defined as a situation in which “the advantages of diversity and individualization are canceled by the complexity of the buyer’s decision-making process.” 

Overchoice brings a number of unwanted results. One is that whoever is trying to choose becomes frustrated, exhausted, possibly angry. None of this contributes to making a good choice. Rather, the decision maker is likely either to give up and settle on something just to get it over with, or — if it’s an option — give up and make no choice at all. 

Another unwanted outcome is that the chooser may end up disappointed or, again, angry. Maybe I blew it — maybe there was a better choice, and I should have tried harder. Or maybe there was a better choice, and “they” shouldn’t have made it so hard to find. 

When it comes to school choice, the vast number of options in places like New York City and other urban centers can leave parents feeling they are at fault when the school doesn’t work out as they hoped. More likely, however, is that they couldn’t have done any better because the system is too bureaucratic and impenetrable, and too many of the best choices are out of reach from the start, especially for economically disadvantaged families. 

A well-known study by Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper (2000), for example, offered shoppers a free sample of jam and then asked how much they liked it. But different shoppers got to choose from a different number of samples, ranging from the common to the exotic. What emerged was that the more samples the shopper had to choose from, the less the shopper liked whichever one he or she chose! We can wonder, then, whether a really wide-ranging school choice program might inadvertently reduce satisfaction as much or more than it increases it, simply because of the availability of choices. 

A shopper can walk away from too many jams — it doesn’t make much difference which one the shopper chooses, and it makes no difference at all which jams everyone else chose. But choosing a school is not like shopping for milk or jam. Which school a parent chooses for a child makes a lot of difference for that child, and which schools are chosen by others also matters. In matters of school choice, we must be mindful that the choices that are available, and the very need to choose, might produce effects other than those that were intended.   

References 

Toffler, A. (1970). Future shock. New York, NY: Bantam Books. 

Iyengar, S.S. & Lepper, M.R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79 (6), 995-1006. 

 

Originally published in February 2018 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (5), 80. © 2018 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved. 

 

TODD L. PITTINSKY (todd@pittinsky.com) is a professor at Stony Brook University (SUNY), Stony Brook, N.Y., and a periodic senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, Mass.

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