Academics or Security? How Web Design Can Influence Parents’ School Choices

Whether it’s buying cars or deciding where to eat out, consumers often turn to the Internet for advice on their choices. The same goes for parents trying to choose the best school for their children – many turn to school search or school buy websites.

Some cities such as New Orleans and Washington even use these websites as part of a single, citywide registration system for all public schools, including charters.

How can the layout and design of a website affect the choices parents make? A little, according to a working paper from Mathematica Policy Research.

“Even seemingly trivial decisions about the order in which schools appear and whether data is presented graphically push parents towards one type of school or another,” the researchers write.

Parents juggle many often competing considerations when choosing schools. While surveys have found that many parents rank academic performance as the most important quality in a school, other studies have found that school location, safety, extracurricular activities, and existing student numbers are also important factors for parents when making a decision. time.

For this study, Mathematica researchers asked parents to use a website tailored for an imaginary school district. Researchers could manipulate the website to include various combinations of school information, such as displaying parent satisfaction ratings for schools, obtaining district averages for each criteria parents were considering, increase or decrease in the overall amount of information presented for a given school and the use of AF grades, icons or graphics to represent school performance.

There were 3,500 parents in the study, all of whom had household incomes of no more than $40,000. Participants were recruited by a market research company to participate in the study.

One of the most influential design elements discovered by the study was how the information was sorted. When the researchers changed the default sorting of a school’s location to academics, parents were more likely to choose a higher-performing school, even if it was farther from their hypothetical home. This was despite the fact that parents could re-sort schools by other criteria if they so wished.

Displaying school information about school performance using icons instead of bar charts or numbers has also led parents to choose better performing schools. But there were compromises. Parents understood information better when it was presented in numbers rather than icons, but they also said they were less satisfied with their choice.

The researchers found that including district averages as a benchmark for parents on various criteria both reduced parents’ ease of use of the website as well as their satisfaction with the experience.

Displays made up of different combinations of information and types of presentation made parents more likely to select different types of schools, whether it was the most academically successful school or the safest. , measured by the percentage of students who had never received a suspension.

Other combinations made parents more satisfied with their choices or the usability of the website.

The researchers caution that there are some important caveats to the study. In the real world, parents will have information about schools that they have gleaned from other sources beyond the website – from social media, advertisements and their own research – and the stakes are also much higher. students. All of this means that the design of the website might have less of an impact outside of the experience.

While default sorting icons and displays can push parents to choose, for example, higher-performing schools, the biggest benefit, researchers say, is this: as parents are increasingly empowered to choose schools, whether district, charter, magnetic, or private, website design can have a big influence on the choices they ultimately make, and subsequently, the types of schools who succeed. This has big implications for policy makers.

And choices have to be made. Other research has shown that even sorting information into what appear to be neutral formats, such as alphabetical lists, still benefits names that appear earlier in the list.

“Given this reality, decisions on how to present information about schools must be made carefully, with particular attention to the nudges that may result and the consequences for students and schools,” says the study.

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Daniel L. Vasquez