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Family Choice in Public Education: The Roles of Students, Teachers, and System Designers

by Richard J. Murnane - 1986

The merits and limitations of expanding family choice of education for children are discussed, with emphasis on how such choice affects students and teachers, what are the competing objectives, and what regulates the choices families may make. (Source: ERIC)

I would like to acknowledge the helpful comments of David Cohen, Patrick J. Murnane, Carol Weiss, and participants in a March 1986 seminar on family choice sponsored by the Center for Policy Research in Education and chaired by Richard Elmore. I would especially like to thank Edward Pauly, who read several drafts of this article and contributed many important ideas.

Debates about the choices families should have in deciding how their children should be educated have a long history in the United States. These debates have generated more heat than light, however, in part because insufficient attention has been paid to the goals of American education, the mechanisms through which more choice would promote or inhibit achievement of these goals, and the evidence from the many existing experiments in family choice.

This article attempts to inform the choice debate by exploring the merits and limitations of expanding family choice in public education. It has three themes. First, we need to understand how family choice affects the students who use it and those who do not, and we especially need to understand how family choice affects teachers, the targets of much angry rhetoric in the choice debates. Second, we must be aware that there are no panacea proposals for family choice; every plan is characterized by significant tensions among competing objectives. Third, no discussion of proposals for family choice can be meaningful or useful unless it specifies the critical details of the regulations that define the systems.

This article complements Michael Krashinskys article in this issue in the following sense. Krashinsky analyzes why government may want to make education rather than buy education. He emphasizes the difficulties government would face in assuring that the education provided by private-sector schools satisfies social objectives. Krashinskys analysis does not consider how government should make education. This article explores one aspect of this issue. In particular, it explores whether greater family choice among public school alternatives can improve the quality of education provided to some children while maintaining allegiance to one critical social goal, providing all children with an adequate education.

I begin by defining terms. By family choice I mean institutional arrangements that permit a student, in consultation with parents, either to choose among or apply for admission to alternative academic programs, staffed by identified teachers and located at identified sites. (The distinction between choose among and apply to is discussed later in the article.) I implicitly assume that parents play the dominant role in choosing programs for elementary-school-aged children, and that high-school-aged students play the primary role in their program choices. I do not, however, discuss potential conflicts between the preferences of family members.

I interpret the expression choice within public education to mean that all academic programs are free to all participating families and that teachers job security is not immediately dependent on attracting students to the programs in which they teach. This interpretation implies that choice within public education differs from the operation of competitive markets in two significant ways. First, explicit price differences play no role in sorting students among programs. Consequently, other mechanisms must bear the full burden of rationing scarce places in popular programs. The choice of these alternative mechanisms plays a large role in determining the outcomes of family-choice systems.

Second, desire for personal profit and fear of job loss, two mechanisms that stimulate entrepreneurial activity in competitive markets, are not powerful stimuli for the creation and sustenance of alternative academic programs in public education. Consequently, an important issue is what incentives do exist for the creation and sustenance of alternative academic programs among which families can choose.


I describe an effective school as an organization in which both students and teachers work hard and actively cooperate with each other in the task of increasing student skill levels. Some readers may find this description trite and empty. It is simple; however, attempts to develop a more comprehensive description have not been very fruitful. Moreover, this description has certain desirable attributes. First, it is in sharp contrast with descriptions of students and teachers that have appeared in recent critical reports on U.S. education. These reports have emphasized the apathy and boredom that characterize life in many U.S. schools.1 Second, it emphasizes the importance of the actions of teachers and students in making schools work. This leads to the critical question: What motivates students and teachers to work hard? Third, it focuses attention on students and teachers dependence on each other. While some descriptions of schooling acknowledge that students depend on teachers, very few acknowledge that teachers also depend on students. A teacher cannot do a good job without the active cooperation of students. Consequently, it is important to ask what factors influence the willingness of teachers and students to cooperate with each other. I posit that it is by influencing students and teachers willingness to work hard and cooperate with each other that expanding family choice can influence the effectiveness of schools in raising student achievement.


How might expanding family choice stimulate students efforts and cooperation with fellow students and teachers in the task of learning? Three mechanisms seem plausible: matching, choosing, and being chosen.

Students may have differing capabilities for learning under particular curricula and teaching styles. Allowing families to choose among alternative programs with clearly defined curricula and known teaching staffs may facilitate the matching of student interests and capabilities with program characteristics that are good for them and thereby stimulate effort and cooperation.

The act of choosing may itself stimulate effort and cooperation by providing an occasion for students and their families to discuss education goals and the kinds of actions that are needed to accomplish the goals. In other words, the process of decision making may help students and their families to appreciate the extent to which educational achievement depends on a students efforts and the support of parents.

Being chosen from a pool of applicants to participate in a competitive program may also stimulate effort and cooperation. This may be particularly important when students understand that a record of sustained effort and cooperation is necessary for continuation in the program.

Clearly, the three mechanisms are closely related. It is useful to distinguish among them, however, because each implies a different emphasis in system design. The matching hypothesis implies that the critical need is for each student to participate in the right program, but that the process used to achieve this match is not important. Consequently, the full benefits of choice might be achieved if an informed school district official made the program choice for students whose parents do not focus on the task of choosing. The other two hypotheses imply that the decision process itself is important, although in different and competing ways.

The choosing hypothesis implies that the system design should encourage students and their parents to weigh the merits of alternative programs and consider carefully the responsibilities that participation in each program implies. Operation of this mechanism implicitly requires that students be permitted to enroll in the program the family chooses. Thus, a critical task in system design is to encourage expansion of popular programs. The being-chosen hypothesis implies that students should be accepted into competitive programs only if they really meet admission standards (otherwise, the feeling of accomplishment is undermined), and that continuation should be contingent on satisfying program demands.


Expanding family choice in public education might stimulate teachers effort levels through mechanisms similar to those hypothesized to influence student behavior. Students choices of academic programs staffed by identified teachers may motivate teachers to high effort levels, both by providing the teachers with students whose interests match their own, and by imparting a sense of pride and accomplishment in being chosen.

In addition to the effects of matching and being chosen, expanding family choice might stimulate teacher effort levels by altering the conditions under which teachers work. Since this mechanism is not usually associated with family choice, I will explain it in some detail.

There have been many reports in recent years about the poor quality of much public school teaching in the United States.2 While many diagnoses have been offered, one recurring theme is that the conditions under which many public school teachers work do not attract talented college graduates to the profession, and do not stimulate the best efforts of those teachers who do work in the public schools. Aspects of the poor working conditions include administrative subservience, lack of control of the resources needed to teach effectively, loneliness, lack of recognition for excellence in teaching, and lack of support. Teachers are often criticized when their students do not acquire high skill levels, yet teachers often have little influence over the curricula that they teach. They also often lack control over the resources that might be used to stimulate students interests, and they often work alone without the support, help, and companionship of colleagues with similar interests.3

How might institutional changes designed to expand family choice alter teachers working conditions, and alter the way teachers behave? One possibility concerns the role of teachers in developing program alternatives. If school district officials give teachers the job of putting together the new curricula, instructional methods, and staffing patterns among which families choose, these new teacher working conditions may stimulate high effort levels. They may also attract to public school teaching talented college graduates who find it appealing to have significant control over the structure of their jobs.

The hypothesis that increasing family choice will improve the quality of teaching in public schools by improving working conditions for teachers lies in sharp contrast to the conventional case for expanding family choice. The difference lies in the view of teachers. The conventional view assumes that teachers are passive, and the active choices of parents will force teachers to change their behavior. The working-conditions hypothesis emphasizes the forces that constrain many public school teachers, and views family choice as a mechanism that may make it easier for teachers to act like enterprising, responsible professionals.4


The issue of how to organize elementary and secondary education in the United States is immensely complicated by the legal framework that defines the role of public education in our society. In the United States, education is a universal service, meaning that all children are guaranteed an education in public schools. In some states the entitlement extends to a commitment to quality. For example, the New Jersey Constitution guarantees all children a thorough and efficient education in public schools.

Education in the United States is also compulsory. All children between certain ages (six to sixteen in most states) must attend school, irrespective of their interest in being in school or their parents support for schooling.

The U.S. commitment to universal and compulsory education means that analysis of family choice must consider the consequences for all families, not only those parents and students actively searching for the best available education, but also those not accustomed to making educational choices, and those who do not view education as a powerful investment in the future. Seen from this perspective, family choice poses a number of difficult questions.


Would all families, including families in which parents have little experience with formal education, have sufficient information to make informed program choices? If families do not have good information about the attributes of available programs, none of the mechanisms through which choice was hypothesized to improve student effort levels and cooperation (matching, choosing, and being chosen) would work. It is possible that students who would not benefit from an increase in choice would be no worse off than they are without program choice. It is also possible, however, that increases in choices among programs would diminish the effectiveness with which parents or their advocates could demand better treatment for children. In other words, more choice might increase the probability that complaints would be met with responses like: If you dont like what we are doing, choose a different program."5


Would many students choose programs with the principal attraction that they require little workand, as a result, provide few skills? This is a potentially serious concern, not because students are irrational, but because it does take hard work to master complex skills. If students see no attractive future for themselves in the labor force, then it may be a rational decision to take it easy and choose undemanding school programs. Economists disagree on the extent to which students in general, and students from low-income and minority-group backgrounds in particular, benefit from education achievement in terms of higher lifetime earnings.6 However, given the high unemployment rates teenagers have faced in recent yearsrates that exceeded 30 percent for teenage minority group members over most of the 1970sthe question of whether a large number of students would choose programs that demand little work and provide few skills must be taken seriously.


Might not some teachers, especially those who have tried unsuccessfully, under adverse conditions, to help students learn, offer students a program that basically consisted of peaceful coexistence, with neither teachers nor students working hard or placing demands on each other? Some critics have charged that this occurs often under the current regime.7 Conceivably it could occur either more or less often under expanded choice systems, depending on the specific incentives incorporated into the design.


Would students who did not appear to be hard-working and cooperative learners, perhaps as judged from their family backgrounds, be able to gain access to popular programs? Or would program staffs deny access to such students on the grounds that accepting them would make it difficult either to offer a high-quality program or to retain the type of students who help make a program successful? Would a potential strength of an expanded family-choice systemthat students efforts are stimulated by pride in being chosenalso be a weakness in that students not chosen would be disheartened and would work less hard?

Low morale is already a problem that is frequently encountered in schools serving the poor, but it is far from ubiquitous. A choice system that had the effect of isolating poor children and labeling them undesirable could make it so, and make such children worse off. The same can be said for teachers who are not chosen to participate in choice schemes.

The question of whether public education would be damaged by an expansion of family choice depends, to a significant extent, on whether students who are not well served in educational systems without choice would be even less well served in systems with choice. The hypotheses about how more family choice might damage public education are no more and no less than warnings that evidence is neededevidence on how students, teachers, and school systems respond to mechanisms of choice.

The hypotheses stated above concerning the potential benefits and costs of expanding family choice in education are not new. All have been stated before, most in the context of the debate during the late 1960s and early 1970s about the merits of education vouchers.8 At that time, however, there was almost no empirical evidence with which to evaluate the significance of potential benefits and costs and the sensitivity of outcomes to regulatory design. This situation has changed somewhat in the intervening years as a result of recent research on public comprehensive high schools, on Catholic high schools, and on existing family choice options within the public sector.


Two recent studies examine the consequences of particular education choices made by high school students and their parents. The first, The Shopping Mall High School by Powell, Farrar, and Cohen, presents a qualitative analysis of the consequences of student choices within the American comprehensive high school. The second, High School Achievement: Public, Catholic and Private Schools Compared by Coleman, Hoffer, and Kilgore, provides a quantitative comparison of the achievement of students who have chosen to attend public, Catholic, or non-Catholic private schools.9 Comparing and contrasting the results of these two studies of family schooling choices provides insights about the consequences of expanding families choices of public-sector education programs.

In The Shopping Mall High School, Powell, Farrar, and Cohen portray the American comprehensive high school as an institution in which students choose among an extremely wide range of courses that vary in topic, style of instruction, and level of difficulty. This wide range of choice is an attempt to respond to the needs of an extremely varied student clientele. To a large extent these courses are designed by classroom teachers subject to the principal constraint that they must attract an audience of students.

A central theme of Shopping Mall is that choice within the comprehensive high school has led to treaties of accommodation, under which a large percentage of the students and teachers agree to live and let live, and not to engage in the mutual challenge and hard work that characterize effective schooling.10 Powell, Farrar, and Cohen argue that the comprehensive high school serves particularly poorly the large number of students who are neither especially talented nor exceptionally troubled.

Shopping Mall raises a critical question: If the extensive choices available in the comprehensive high school result in such mediocre outcomes for a large percentage of students, on what grounds can one be optimistic about the consequences of expanding family choice still further, by providing choices among different public schools?

In High School Achievement, Coleman, Hoffer, and Kilgore use the baseline data from the High School and Beyond (HSB) project, a longitudinal study of 58,728 U.S. high school students who were either sophomores or seniors in 1980, to compare the achievement of students attending public and private schools. I focus on the public schoolCatholic school comparison because the small number of non-Catholic private schools in the HSB sample, and the wide variation across these twenty-seven schools in school characteristics, student characteristics, and student performance, has led most analysts to conclude that there are insufficient data to derive reliable conclusions about the population of such schools.11

A central conclusion of the research of Coleman, Hoffer, and Kilgore is that, on average, Catholic high schools are more effective in helping students to increase their cognitive skills than public schools are. Moreover, they find that the Catholic school advantage, as I will call it, is greatest for minority-group students, and for students from low-income families. These findings lead Coleman, Hoffer, and Kilgore to the conclusion that giving parents and students more schooling choices would improve the quality of education many students receive.


Why do student choices of courses within the public comprehensive high school leadaccording to Shopping Mallto relatively ineffective schooling, while family choices of Catholic high schools leadaccording to High School Achievementto relatively effective schooling? There are many possible explanations. E. G. West argues that private schools are effective because, unlike public schools, they are subject to the competitive pressures of the market.12 This view implies that the critical distinction is between public provision, in any form, and private provision; consequently, expanding choice within the public sector would do little to improve the education provided to students.

Other analysts argue that the High School Achievement finding of a Catholic school advantage is unwarranted, and therefore there is no evidence that choices among school programs lead to different outcomes from course choices within a school. These analysts basic argument is that factors that influence family schooling choices, such as family income, family knowledge about programs, and school admission and dismissal policies, result in more academically able students attending Catholic schools, on average, than attend public schools. These critics argue, further, that Coleman, Hoffer, and Kilgores attempts to control statistically for the differences in the skills and motivations that students bring to different schools are inadequate. Consequently, their findings are contaminated by what quantitative analysts call selectivity bias.13

The views of E. G. West and the critics of Coleman, Hoffer, and Kilgore have some merit.14 However, I believe there are other factors that contribute to the differences in the Shopping Mall and High School Achievement findings, factors that are relevant to the design of family-choice plans within public education. These factors concern differences in the types of choices that these two studies examine.


Catholic schools control over admission and dismissal policies not only helps in attracting (already) talented and motivated students (as emphasized by the critics of Coleman, Hoffer, and Kilgore); it may also improve the effectiveness of the schools programs. There are at least three contributing mechanisms. First, control over student admissions and dismissals may make it easier to attract high-quality teachers, many of whom do not want to work with disruptive students and therefore value Catholic schools distinctive working conditions.15 Second, selecting students on a competitive basis from a large applicant pool may stimulate students who feel that they have been chosen to engage in the hard work and active cooperation with teachers that contributes to an effective school. Third, the interview process that is often part of applying for admission to a Catholic school may serve not only to select students, but also to inform students and their parents about how a particular school works, and as a first step in helping students to adopt behavior patterns that lead to high achievement for them and their peers.

In contrast to the formal admission process that is part of choosing a Catholic school, many students in the comprehensive high school choose each year in a quite haphazard manner among a wide variety of course offerings. A large percentage of the courses have no admission requirements, since a primary goal of the comprehensive high school is to promote, rather than to limit, choice. Moreover, except for students in the top track, satisfactory performance is not a condition for being allowed to continue. While it is important to acknowledge the value of an institution where extraordinarily diverse students can all feel accepted, such almost unconditional acceptance does not provide strong incentives to engage in the hard work that is necessary for real learning.


The growth in curricular alternatives within the comprehensive high school may have contributed to a reduction in the basic skills of high school students. One reason is that the increase in curricular alternatives has been accompanied by a reduction in the number of math courses and other basic-skills courses that students take.16 The number of math courses a student takes is a strong predictor of the students score on a standardized math test.17 A second reason is that it may be particularly difficult for teachers to make great demands on students when the students are free to choose other, less-demanding courses. Moreover, when some students face no homework demands, other students may feel peer pressure not to do homework either.

In Catholic high schools there are typically far fewer curricular alternatives than in the comprehensive public high school. As a result, the students in many Catholic high schools are all doing the same, or similar, course work. This may contribute to student learning in three ways. First, it may make it easier to establish peer norms that doing homework is acceptable. Second, the paucity of undemanding elective courses in the curriculum may make it easier for teachers to make demands on students, who cannot escape those demands by choosing less-demanding courses. Third, the presence of a common curriculum may make it easier for students and their parents to assess the value of choosing a particular schoolthey know what they are getting. Evidence that graduates of a particular school program did well in college or in the labor market may make students more willing to do the hard work that real learning requires.


One other difference between Catholic high schools and many comprehensive high schools that may bear on the design of public-sector family-choice programs is the way teachers are hired. In most public school districts, teachers are hired by a central office personnel administrator, often without input from the principal of the school to which the teacher will be assigned, and without the applicants knowledge of his or her specific assignment. Individual Catholic schools typically hire their own teachers. Not only does the school principal know about the attributes of applicants, but applicants also know the type of program they would work in, the types of students they would teach, and the types of colleagues they would have. This greater certainty about working conditions may be one of the reasons Catholic schools have been able to hire teachers at lower salaries than those paid by most public school districts. Note that Catholic-school hiring practices do not directly stem from family choice, but rather from school-level decision making that family choice may encourage.

How important are admission and dismissal procedures, curriculum structure, and the process by which teachers are hired in explaining why families choices of Catholic schools appear to have consequences different from those of student course choices within the comprehensive high school? We do not know. There are many differences between public comprehensive high schools and Catholic high schools, and neither the research of Powell, Farrar, and Cohen nor that of Coleman, Hoffer, and Kilgore explores which aspects of the institutions they examine critically influence their effectiveness. Consequently, the differences between Catholic high schools and public comprehensive high schools that I identify can be viewed only as hypotheses about factors that may influence the consequences of different types of schooling choices.

Some support for these hypotheses does come from media reports about public schools that are unexpectedly successful in raising the achievement test scores of students from low-income families and minority groups. A careful reading of the description of what these schools do often reveals that their student admission policies and teacher hiring practices are more like those of private schools than those of typical public schools. I illustrate with two examples.

In 1983 the New York Times reported the successful rejuvenation of Lincoln Park High School, located in a low-income area of Chicago.18 This school had changed from a history of low achievement and violence to a reputation for innovative curricula and excellence. A critical ingredient in the rejuvenation effort was the district superintendents effort to recruit students who would help make the school work. As part of the citywide voluntary desegregation program, she was able to recruit students citywide, using board of education records to find high-achieving eighth-grade students, to whom she sent a distinctive pamphlet describing Lincoln Park. These efforts led to an increase in enrollment in the school, both white and black, and eventually to a waiting list of 1,200 applicants.

Another success story is that of Beasley Elementary School, located within a block or two of. . . one of the most notorious housing projects in Chicago.19 Beasley also has a long waiting list, and accepts only students with average or better skills. Students who do not do homework or who exhibit behavior problems are transferred to another school. The principal of Beasley is allowed personally to select two-thirds of the schools faculty.

Success stories such as Lincoln Parks and Beasleys must be interpreted carefully because the only evidence of causal relationships between program characteristics and student achievement are reporters judgments. The stories do suggest, however, that public schools that are allowed to function like private schools in selecting and dismissing students and teachers can often achieve remarkable results in raising the skills of students from poor families. Moreover, the schools successes are related to strong support from parents that appears to be stimulated by family choice.

In one respect these success stories are encouraging because they suggest that certain types of public-sector choice can help some students from low-income and minority-group families to acquire high-skill levels. In another respect, however, the stories are discouraging in terms of the potential for greater family choice to improve the education of all students. The reason is that the successes seem tied to the ability of schools to be selective of students and teachers. Being chosen appears to be a powerful mechanism for stimulating high effort levels, particularly when continued participation requires clearly specified behavior.

What about those students who would like to attend Lincoln Park or Beasley, but were not accepted? What about those students who did not apply? Where did they go to school? The accounts of the success stories do not tell us. But it is troubling that being chosenin the cases of Beasley and Lincoln Park, from long waiting listsappears to be so important in stimulating the high effort levels and cooperation that make schools effective. It is hard to envision an expanded public-sector choice system that could make all students feel that they had been chosen.


The most in-depth research on public-sector family-choice plans consists of a series of analyses conducted by the Rand Corporation. These studies examine family-choice plans in four public school districts: Alum Rock, California; Eugene, Oregon; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Minneapolis, Minnesota. One other less detailed, but interesting, study of a family-choice plan in an unidentified city was conducted by Nault and Uchitelle.20 In addition to these studies of specific family-choice plans, Mary Anne Raywids work provides a significant amount of information about schools of choice in general, and especially about alternative schools, which she describes as schools that sought from the start to respond to particular student needs and interests allegedly unmet in regular schools and to particular parent concerns and desires which other schools failed to satisfy.21

Recent studies of magnet schools have also increased our knowledge of the consequences of family-choice plans. The largest study, by Blank et al., examines what magnet schools do, what they accomplish, and what factors influence their effectiveness.22 Rossells review of a number of magnet school studies provides additional useful evidence about these schools.23 The magnet school studies are particularly relevant to this article because magnet schools are the most rapidly growing type of family-choice plans in the United States. (In 1981 there were more than one thousand magnet schools in operation.24)

It is difficult to draw inferences about the consequences of family-choice plans from the available evidence for three related reasons. First, choice plans vary a great deal in how they workRaywid classifies thirty-six types of plansand the consequences are sensitive to the details of the individual plans.25 Second, there is no reason to believe that the available evidence accurately portrays the range of programs in operation in the more than four thousand U.S. school districts that provide some students with choices of academic programs.26 Third all of the studies of public-sector family-choice plans have one significant drawback: They provide little direct evidence on the critical question of how choice affects student achievement. While remembering these caveats, it is useful to explore what the available evidence does reveal about the consequences of family-choice plans.


There are two lessons concerning family knowledge of educational alternatives. First, choice plans do appear to enhance parents knowledge about school programs. Nault and Uchitelle found that parents who lived in a school district that did provide educational alternatives were more knowledgeable about school programs than were parents from similar backgrounds who lived in a district that did not provide options.27

Second, parents with low income and low educational levels are much less knowledgeable about how choice plans work and about the attributes of alternative programs than are parents with higher incomes and more education. As Nault and Uchitelle explain, Our findings reinforce the argument . . . that . . . designers of choice programs who seek to attenuate the educational disadvantages of socioeconomic class will need to include mechanisms that will compensate for the advantages of income and occupation.28

What should these mechanisms be? One study of voucher systems recommended that school district officials act as consumer ombudsmen, disseminating information about alternative programs, and advising parents of application procedures and transfer options.29 Evidence from Alum Rock suggests that this strategy is likely to introduce significant tensions between ombudsmen and program staffs concerning the types of information that should be distributed. In Alum Rock, program staffs resisted release of information on student achievement, and fought with consumer representatives about who should control entry to over subscribed programs.30

This finding is not merely a case of politics or implementation failure. It indicates a tension between the matching and choosing mechanisms of family-choice proposals, which require broad consumer information, and the teachers-working-conditions mechanism, which may be undermined by such information requirements.


One theme that emerges from the descriptions of the schooling choices of families is that many students and/or their parents pay attention to the nature of student-teacher relationships and to instructional style. Raywid describes these factors as being much more significant determinants of families choices of alternative school programs than curriculum specialties are.31 One somewhat disturbing aspect of this matching evidence is that middle-class parents tend to choose child-centered instructional methods, while blue-collar parents tend to choose more teacher-centered and more highly structured instructional methods.32 Thus, the family-choice plans facilitated segregation of students by their family backgrounds.

Rossell, in summarizing the evidence on the reasons why families chose magnet schools, also downplays the role of curriculum differences. She cites a 1977 survey of parents whose children were in magnet schools that found that 87 percent did not know the magnet theme of their childs school. She also cites survey results indicating that many parents value magnet schools because they are selective, or at least are perceived to be selective, and that this contributes to their being seen as good schools.33 This evidence on magnet schools is also troubling because it suggests the importance of the being-chosen mechanism, and raises the question of the effect magnets have on those not chosen. It is important to note, however, that most magnet schools were introduced to aid desegregation. The importance that parents attach to selectivity may stem from this context. Raywids interpretation of families choices of alternative school programs, for xample, does not mention selectivity, but does emphasize matching.34

While the importance of instructional style and selectivity is difficult to weigh, there is no question about the importance of another factor in influencing families schooling choiceslocation of the school. For parents of elementary school children in Alum Rock, the location of alternative educational programs was the most critical determinant of their attractiveness. Parents wanted their children to be able to walk to school. In fact, parents greatest fear about the introduction of program choices was that their child might be denied access to the neighborhood school.35

To accommodate parents concern about location, many family-choice plans, including the Alum Rock plan, provided several alternative educational programs (sometimes called minischools) within the same school building. This solution to the location problem is not without cost, however. Several studies report that conflicts arose in some schools between the staffs of different programs, usually over access to equipment and materials. There is also some evidence that different programs housed in the same school became less distinct over time.36 Finally, one of the greatest attractions of alternative schooling programs for some teachers, greater professional autonomy, was jeopardized when the alternative program was located within a school building in which all teachers were subject to common procedural requirements and duties.37 Thus tension in program design is likely between satisfying parents desires for programs close to home and creating conditions that encourage program diversity.

The magnet school study by Blank et al. also suggests that location is an important design issue, particularly in regard to desegregation. However, there is no simple story on where magnet schools should be placed to maximize desegregation. The definition of a good location depends on a variety of factors, including enrollment trends, and the location of other magnet schools.38

Blank et al. do report one pattern found in other studies of family-choice plans, namely, that locating choice programs within facilities used for other school programs creates problems. They find that where the key magnet leader is not the principalas is typical for magnet programs within schoolsconflicts, confusion, and leadership vacuums can arise.39


According to Raywid, most teachers who choose to work in alternative schools experience a significant improvement in working conditions, including an increase in autonomy, and a larger role in hiring staff and allocating funds. Moreover, morale is high among teachers in these schools.40

Do teachers in schools of choice develop innovative curricula? The most detailed evidence on teachers actions in schools of choice comes from the federally funded voucher experiment in Alum Rock, California. Family choice came to Alum Rock not because teachers thought it a potentially valuable way to improve public education, but because family choice would bring federal money that the district badly wanted. Teachers acceptance of the program was purchased with a pay raise.41 For these reasons it is not surprising that the plan collapsed when the superintendent who had negotiated the introduction of a family-choice plan went on leave.42

Despite the unpropitious circumstances that brought family choice to Alum Rock, the evidence on teacher reactions can be seen as modestly encouraging. Teachers participating in the minischools did produce quite distinctive program alternatives. Moreover, teachers reported that they experienced a significant increase in autonomy. Unfortunately, they also reported working harder than they ever had in the past, and becoming burned out after several years in their new roles.43

The evidence from some of the other family-choice plans studied by Rand indicates that burnout is not an inevitable consequence of greater teacher autonomy. For example, a modest family-choice plan in which teachers played a critical role in developing and implementing program alternatives thrived in Eugene, Oregon, for several years. Among the factors that contributed to the longevity of family choice in Eugene is that, unlike the situation in Alum Rock, there was a significant internal constituency of parents and teachers that valued family choice. Another factor was that the Eugene plan was small, involving only the 5 percent of the teaching staff that had a strong interest in accepting additional responsibilities in return for significant professional autonomy.44

In both Alum Rock and Eugene, teachers did report that the development and management of alternative educational programs required much more work than traditional classroom teaching had. This led to demands for low teacher-student ratios and funds for summer preparation. In effect, the claim of many teachers was that they were doing a more difficult job and needed additional resources and compensation to do this job well.45

The arguments of teachers in family-choice plans suggests yet another tension in program design. Retaining teachers willingness to do the hard work and accept the significant responsibility associated with managing distinctive programs may require that these teachers receive more resources than teachers working in more conventional schools. However, providing more resources and support to teachers working in alternative education programs than to other teachers in the same school district creates ill will and may undermine the family-choice system.

Teachers were not a primary focus of the research of Blank et al. on magnet schools. However, the evidence that is presented indicates that guarded optimism is warranted about the effects magnet schools have on the quality of teaching in public schools. Almost all magnet schools drew teachers from a pool of volunteers. There is no evidence that any magnet school had difficulty in recruiting teachers. The study reports high morale among the staffs of magnet schools and low staff turnover.

The Blank et al. study emphasizes the importance of having teachers participate in the design of magnet school curricula. No evidence is presented indicating that such participation led to widespread complaints about excessive work loads. However, the extent to which teachers received extra compensation for curriculum design is not explored.

Critical unanswered questions concern how the creation of magnet schools affects the quality of teaching in nonmagnet schools. What happens to staff and student morale in schools whose best teachers leave to teach in magnet schools? What happens to the morale and teaching performance of teachers who apply to teach in magnet schools, but are not chosen? Because we do not know the answers to these questions, we do not know the extent to which the achievements of magnet schools are a net gain to public education, and the extent to which these achievements are made at the expense of teachers and students in nonmagnet schools.


Teachers wanted to control admissions to schools of choice in several of the plans studied by Rand. For example, one of the working conditions that the teachers in Alum Rock choice programs fought for most vigorously and eventually won was the right to control student transfer into their programs during the school year.46 In Eugene teachers controlled who was admitted to the choice programs.47 The importance to teachers of controlling the admissions process is not surprising. It is implicit in the work of Coleman and his colleagues that control of admissions and dismissals can play an important role in fostering program effectiveness.48

I want to be clear that while teachers wanted control over admissions, there is no evidence from the Rand studies that teachers used this control to cream skim the most able students.49 In fact, there is no evidence that students encountered persistent problems in gaining access to any academic program offered as part of the family-choice plans studied by Rand. In one sense, this is encouraging, since it suggests that the fear that children from low-income families would be denied access to popular programs may have been exaggerated.

On the other hand, the lack of complaints about access is puzzling. There were some oversubscribed programs. Why did parents whose children were not admitted to a program not complain? Was the reason that admission procedures were so scrupulously fair that there was no cause for complaint? Or were no programs so much better than alternatives that parents cared very much? Or did parents feel that they had no hope of being able to fight City Hall, and so became passive? We do not know the answer.

The very limited evidence from Alum Rock indicates that the achievement of students who participated in the family-choice plan was not significantly higher than that of children who did not participate.50 This supports the view that parents did not complain about access because the program alternatives did not include any dramatic success stories. In trying to understand the access issue, it would be valuable to know about the responses of families whose children were not admitted to Lincoln Park School, Beasley School, and other success stories. Unfortunately, the reports of these success stories do not address this important question.

Blank et al. interpret their evidence on access to magnet schools as encouraging. They report that, while 89 percent of the magnet schools in their sample were somewhat selective in choosing among applicants, most based admission on interest in the theme of the school and on students desire to participate in the schools program. Eighty-seven percent of the schools admitted students of average ability, defined as academic performance at grade level. Moreover, magnet schools with these admission criteria seemed to perform as well as those that accepted only very able students.51

The encouraging aspect of the Blank et al. findings is that they refute the notions that magnet schools are highly selective, or that they need to be very selective to be successful. At the same time, the findings clearly indicate that magnet schools are not for all students. For example, the common entrance requirement of academic performance at grade level eliminates half of the students in the typical urban school district. Moreover, Blank et al. report that magnet schools as a rule deny admission to students with social or behavior problems, as indicated by poor attendance or frequent disciplinary action.52 Thus, in evaluating the role of magnet schools in a public school system committed to serving all students not attending private schools, one must ask: What happens to those students who are not admitted to magnet schools?


Each of the three primary sources of evidence on family choice in education has a distinct limitation:

Studies of the performance of private schools lack information on the admission and dismissal policies of individual schools.

Descriptions of public-sector success stories provide no information about what happens to students not admitted to these schools.

Studies of existing family-choice plans lack detailed evidence on student achievement.

A consequence of these limitations is that one must view as tentative inferences about the consequences of expanding family choice in public education. Keeping this caveat in mind, interpretation of existing evidence suggests three types of lessons: conclusions about what family choice can and cannot accomplish, sources of tension, and the importance of system design.


Artfully designed family-choice plans can improve the quality of education provided to some children, including some children from low-income families. These are likely to be children whose parents value education and encourage cooperative in-school behavior and regular completion of homework.

Family-choice plans will not improve the education of all children. In fact, one of the most powerful mechanisms of eliciting students effort and cooperation, being chosen for participation in a popular, competitive program, implies that some students will be left out. Family choice cannot make every student feel special. Those students most likely to be left out are students whose parents are not able to provide consistent support for cooperative in-school behavior and regular completion of homework.

The critical and almost totally unexplored hope is that family-choice plans may improve education through the mechanism of changing teachers working conditions. In particular, family choice may make teaching more attractive to innovative, entrepreneurial college students and may facilitate more of the hard work and cooperation between teachers and students that effective learning requires. At this point, the evidence regarding the importance of this mechanism is extremely limited.

The greatest danger of family-choice systems is that their limits may not be recognized. Consequently, expansion of choice may be accompanied by a blame the victim mentality that results in reductions of support for programs aimed at helping those children most likely to be left out in a regime of expanded family choice.


Likely sources of tension in the design and operation of family choice plans include:

1. Information provided to families about program attributes: Families want information on student achievement; program staffs resist publication and distribution of certain aspects of this information.

2. Rules regarding admission to popular programs: Program staffs want control over admissions and transfers; representatives of low-income families want admissions procedures that guarantee access (or at least equal probability of access) for children from low-income families.

3. Location of programs: Locating several programs within the same school satisfies parents demands for choices close to home; it also increases conflicts among program staffs and threatens the distinctiveness of individual programs over time.

4. Resources for family-choice programs: Program staffs want higher-than-average resource levels and extra compensation for extra work; nonparticipating teachers want equal treatment of all teachers in the school district.


The consequences of family choice for students and teachers depend critically on the specifics of the regulations that define the plan. These specifics are not administrative details, of second-order importance; they are central design issues. Their importance implies that there is no simple answer to the question of whether more family choice is good for public education.

Two final aspects of the design issue stand out-the importance of starting small and of providing long-term support. The reason to start small is that only a minority of teachers in most settings are immediately willing to do extra work to gain greater autonomy. The probability of success is greatest if the plan is of sufficiently small scale that only teachers who embrace the idea of gaining greater control over their work lives participate. The optimistic vision is that over time more teachers will see the attraction of exercising greater control over their work lives, and talented college graduates will be drawn into teaching by the attraction of professional autonomy.

The need for long-term support stems from the uncertain nature of any real innovation. Teachers will make mistakes as they develop and try out new program ideas. Teachers need support for several years if they are to have time to find productive responses to the problems and opportunities that accompany family choice.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 88 Number 2, 1986, p. 169-189
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 590, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 8:10:27 AM

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