If the School Fits: Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Choice?

Watch out for this graphic from The Simpsons in Sheena Iyengar's TED talk.

The previous post in this series draws attention to the social, political, and investment capital behind the push for charter schools in Baltimore. It presents as a real possibility the overrunning of the Baltimore City Public School System with dozens upon dozens of options.

This line of thinking isn’t going where some readers might expect – to an argument that denies students and parents the agency to choose where to go or send their children to school. That caricature of reasoning is polarizing the debate between education reform advocates and their most vocal critics. Attentive readers will find more subtlety in these posts.

For the sake of appreciating the ideas presented in this one, forget whether you believe in public schools, or charter schools, or school choice. Forget if you’re agnostic as to the delivery mechanism of a great education. Forget all the metaphysical talk for a moment and put on your secular consumer cap. Then chew on this:

Does having 12 or 22 or 34 or 61 choices make your life any better, or happier, or more fulfilling than if you had, say, two? 

Psychologists, behavioral economists, and entrepreneurs have spent a good deal of intellectual energy on the problem of excessive choice. I spent a few minutes compiling links. Choose one:

I’m only half kidding. You will spend well over an hour on your computer if you watch and read all this content. If you’re interested in the issue of school choice – as a critic or a booster – I promise that engaging with this stuff is worth your while. A few minutes of skimming is all it takes to learn that some highly educated western minds are beginning to see holes in the conventional wisdom around the goodness of consumer choice.

Follow these links and you’ll find a few TED talks as well as references to books and peer reviewed journal articles by Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz, Stanford University psychology professor Hazel Rose Markus, assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University Nicole Stephens, Krishna Savani of Columbia University, Sheena Iyengar, Ph.D., a management professor at Columbia University Business School, Mark Lepper, Ph.D., another psychology professor at Stanford University, social psychologist Alexander Chernev, Ph.D., also of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon, Ph.D. (Click his name to learn where he went to elementary and high school.)

Explore. And stay tuned.

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7 Responses to “If the School Fits: Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Choice?”

  1. Thank you! Your great post took a while to peruse. I found that the Nicole Stephens/Northwestern study distilled an undefined impression I’ve had for some time. I have noticed a distinct lack of altruism, and an every-man-for-himself sentiment among some groups who are at the same time calling for “parity”. Wade through the official mission statement morass and it is painfully clear, though still perplexing.

    For instance, would someone find themselves in a moral quandary accepting money from charter operators (as in, a job?) while believing that charters “represent a civil rights failure”?

    Finally, I think Poly is still a true-blue public magnet school, so is City.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful blog


  2. Excellent argument. Well made. Made with a sledgehammer I think though, at least on this rhetorical point. Only half-kidding indeed. That education is a commodified object is not surprising. Yet its perversions in Baltimore are not merely about consumer capitalism; that is its rhetorical cover, not its end.

    In some sense it has already “over-run” the system. The “innovations,” “transformations,” de facto and de jure “charters” (see for instance the self-aggrandizing narratives of “City” and “Poly”), etc; “charter” is merely a recent idiomatic incarnation.

    As if there were a genuine commitment to institutional public education space qua public space since circa 1954 …

    I am sure you have seen the civil rights project’s worK:


    I think this is where to begin the conversation about how consumer capitalism, choice, reproduces power and has absolutely nothing to do with choice, freedom or, yes, even education.

    Excellent questioning, thinking and writing.




  3. Carol –

    I agree with you that Schwartz’s criticisms of excessive choice don’t map on to a criticism of school choice. But they do support the point that critics of status quo education reform are making: We need to address poverty in this country before we can hope to fix failing schools. His talk is basically on the disease of affluence. (Industrial age thinkers called it “the morbid desire for the infinite.”) I’m with Schwartz on the diagnosis and the idea for a cure: redistribute wealth such that the top isn’t overwhelmed by choice and the people at the bottom can have some more options than they’re used to having. Because I’m with Schwartz on the downside of affluence, I find myself uneasy about the idea that the choice movement – not necessarily in Baltimore but writ large – is selling the poor and aspiring classes a good that isn’t really good for anyone.


  4. Watched the film. Like Scwartz. He says in the talk something like – let me be clear, I am talking about affluent, western market consumer societies. Having lived in a very poor country I agree that 75 choices of toothpaste is crazy. We americans export this idealization of things, lots of things, too. But I don’t see, from my experience with my own kids schooling and knowing a little about many schools here in Baltimore that the consumer analogies help. Very strong procharter folks sometimes do this (i think they invoke neighborhood supermarkets as in I should be able to have more than one and they equate school systems with mass production like mcdonlads) and I disagree. I get the point, but do not find that analogy helpful. And I also disagree that Schwartz’s points translate to a criticism of school choice. Choosing a school is not like choosing toothpaste or jeans. It’s like choosing a school. Or choosing to get involved in a school. It’s more like this piece in Time this week. http://ti.me/pDHqG0

    If a child in any zip code has 1 good option or even 2 rather than 0, that’s a big win. I think that kid has new doors open to him or her. I don’t think that family will be overhwlemed or confused. Just as always the family has the highest expectations for their child and the school community that serves him/her.



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