The most interesting comment I heard at this week’s American Federation for Children conference in Washington, D.C., came from Ed Kirby, who heads up projects at the Walton Family Foundation. After listening to GreatSchools CEO Bill Jackson and me talk about the information parents need to make good schooling choices, Ed said how rare it was to hear education reformers discuss improving the demand side of K-12 education. We tend to focus almost exclusively on improving schools and teachers (i.e., the suppliers), Ed remarked, and we ignore enhancing the capacity of parents to make good choices.
This is an important insight. In most sectors of our society we rely on consumers to inform and drive improvements in products and services, but that’s not true in publicly funded K-12 education. United States automakers didn’t invest in high quality small cars until American consumers started buying small cars from Japanese automakers. Microsoft is now investing heavily in online services because its customers are increasingly purchasing online services. The collective wisdom of consumers is the most valuable asset in our country, and yet we ignore this asset in K-12 education and then wonder why productivity in publicly funded education has remained stagnant.
Tenure reform, merit pay, increased funding, and more school choice will not significantly improve student learning if we don’t if give parents access to the information and support they need to make good choices. Ed is correct. Well informed parental empowerment is a necessary condition for improving K-12 education.