state-of-the-field article “School choice’s idealized premises and unfulfilled promises” now available

Just before 2019 ends and we enter 2020, I’ve finally broken the superstition that whatever you do on New Years will be what you will do for the following New Years.  This year, a R&R converted into an accept and page proofs before New Years hit!

My co-authored paper with Megan Moskop is now available under the Organizations & Work section of Sociology Compass!  In this paper, using critical sociology and education research, we overview the variants of school choice systems in the US and their impacts on students, schools, and society.

Here’s the abstract:

School choice’s idealized premises and unfulfilled promises: How school markets simulate options, encourage decoupling and deception, and deepen disadvantages


In school choice systems, families choose among publicly funded schools, and schools compete for students and resources. Using neoinstitutionalist and relational inequality theories, our article reinterprets recent critical sociological and education research to show how such markets involve actors’ enacting myths; these beliefs and their associated practices normalized white, privileged consumption as a basis for revamping public education as market exchanges between schools and families. Proponents argue that choice empowers individuals, focuses organizations on improving quality, and benefits society more broadly by reducing inequality and segregation. We argue that such school choice myths’ excessive emphases on individual decision‐making and provider performance obscure the actual impacts of school choice systems upon people, organizations, and society. First, rather than enlarging alternatives that families can easily research, select, and (if needed) exit, school choice systems often simulate options, especially for disadvantaged populations. Second, rather than focusing schools’ efforts on performance, innovation, and accountability, they can encourage organizational decoupling, homogeneity, and deception. Third, rather than reducing societal harms, they can deepen inequalities and alienation. Future research should examine both how markets are animated by bounded relationality—routines that enable them to form, maintain, and complete exchanges with organizations—and how activism can challenge marketization.

Please consider assigning this state-of-the-field article in your sociology of education, inequality, economic sociology, and/or organizations courses!  (If your institution doesn’t have access to Sociology Compass, please contact me directly for a copy.)

This paper began when Megan approached me during a March 2018  Future Initiatives “Publics, Politics, and Pedagogy: Remaking Higher Education for Turbulent Times” event at the Graduate Center.  After hearing me talk on a faculty panel about my research interests, Megan asked whether we could do an informal reading group on school choice readings.  We exchanged emails and agreed to meet in person to discuss readings.

At the time, Megan was working on her masters classes and thesis in urban education at the CUNY MALS program.  She was looking for a way to manage her growing collection of citations as she analyzed her past experiences with teaching 8th graders and their families about how to participate in the mandatory school choice market in NYC .

As a new entrant to research on learning and schools through my on-going ethnography of a democratic school, I had the sense that whatever was happening in the insurance market for older adults seemed to exist in other emerging markets for other age groups.  To understand the education options in NYC, I had attended a few NYC Dept. of Education and other orientations for families on how to select pre-K and higher program.  I found these experiences comparable to my observations of orientations for professionals and older adults about enrolling in Medicare: palpable waves of anxiety and disorientation were evident in the reactions and questions from these two differently aged audiences to workshops about how they were supposed to act as consumers felt similar.  I thus became interested in learning about research on the comparable school choice market for my ethnographic research on how intermediary organizations try to orient consumers to the health insurance market.  (Indeed, a side benefit of this collaboration was that the school choice readings helped amplify my development of the bounded relationality concept that ultimately appeared in Socio-Economic Review.)

Megan and I met regularly discuss readings that Megan had suggested and I had found through literature searches in sociology.  After several of these meetings, I raised the possibility of writing a state-of-the-field overview article.  Working on this draft helped us keep track of what we had learned.  It also helped us understand how to map existing research and to identify a void that our respective expertises and writing could address: synthesizing critical studies emerging from organizations and education.   For Megan, I hoped that this experience would give her a behind-the-scenes look at the academic production of research, so that she could decide whether to head this direction.

As we read more about school choice, I realized that we hadn’t come across a chart mapping the types of school choice systems currently in operation.  Megan thus worked hard at developing a table that describes and compares different types of school choice systems.  (In my opinion, this paper’s table is a handy first step for those trying to understand the school choice landscape.)

Meanwhile, I focused on applying an organizational framework to categorize research from the sociology of education and education fields.  As we worked on the drafts in response to writing group and reviewers’ and Sociology Compass section editor Eric Dahlin’s comments, we also realized that no one had systemically broken down the impacts of using market practices to distribute public goods across levels of individual persons, organizations, and society at large.

Along the way, thanks to Megan’s connections to education and activism, we got to learn directly from people about on-going activism and research.  For instance, youth organization IntegrateNYC sent representative Iman Abdul to talk to my “Future of NYC” honors college students about efforts to racially integrate NYC public schools.  Megan and I also attended Kate Phillippo’s talk about her research on school choice in Chicago from her latest book, A Contest Without Winners: How Students Experience Competitive School Choice (2019, University of Minnesota Press).

In all, writing this paper has been a great journey with a fun and insightful collaborator.  Had you asked me back in spring 2018 what the outcome of presenting at a CUNY event would have been, I could not have predicted this.  I am forever grateful that Megan came to talk with me!

Happy New Years, readers!  May the new year bring you joy, happiness, and health.


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