Paradox of School Choice

I have been contributing to this blog for almost a month now.  From the beginning, I was reminded of a podcast that I heard almost a year ago.  The podcast was an episode of WNYC’s Radio Lab.  Radio Lab is a fantastic program that asks very interesting philosophical questions about life (the afterlife, morality, sleep, stress, time, etc.)  and tries to present a scientific viewpoint on the issue.  In particular, they do an incredible job telling wonderful stories and distilling the science into narratives that are very engaging to the non-scientist listener.  I highly recommend it.  Over the last month writing this blog, I am reminded of a particular episode on the topic of Choice.  On the show, they hear from a long list of guests, including a professor from Swarthmore College, Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Jonah Lehrer, contributing Editor at Wired Magazine and author of How We Decide, Baba Shiv, Professor of Marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Oliver Sacks, neurologist, and Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers: The Story of Success.

I highly recommend listening to the program yourself.  But one of the core arguments that is made (which I will now grossly oversimplify) is that the human brain can only hold a finite and very small amount of data.  Applied to the subject of this blog–the more data that I accumulate, the more schools that I research, the harder the choice becomes and the greater the likelihood of making a bad choice and subsequently experiencing regret.  Going with your gut is a better ‘choice’, the argument goes.  I actually remember this when prepping for the SAT 20 years ago–the test tutors used to tell us that when we didn’t know the answer, don’t over-think it.  Your greatest chance of guessing correctly is to go with your initial instinct.

In general, I buy into this principle when it comes to making a choice about a purchase like a car or a TV set.  However, when it comes to choosing a school for my children, I am having trouble applying this philosophy.  I posted earlier about my choice criteria (diversity, community, educational quality) that I am taking into account alongside other non-school factors that I won’t be blogging about (professional, personal, relocation).  The lesson I am taking away from Radio Lab will be that I will try to research diligently, but not to worry about the details of my inputs.  In other words, I may set a threshold for reading/math test scores, but I won’t decide on a school because 85% score above average versus 80% at another school.  Ultimately, this also means that this whole choice will become clearer after I stop reading about schools and actually get off the internet and visit some.  I intend to make the primary food for my gut to be seeing classrooms and meeting teachers and administrators.   After the new year….

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