When I first thought of the possibility of using Latent Semantic Analysis (LSA) to analyse my parent interviews exploring school choice my expectation was that the odds of success were slim. I was familiar with the use of LSA in helping decipher the contextual meaning of words in ancient texts and indicate the likelihood a text was written by a particular person based on their known works. LSA is one of the methods used to try and identify (speculate) who the ‘real’ Shakespeare was by comparing the works of Shakespeare with the writings of other contemporaries. But could LSA be applied to interviews investigating economic decision making behaviour and provide meaningful insights? Would it be possible to identify key concepts influencing the decision making process based the common use of key words? Could LSA identify ‘latent authors’ representing distinct, heterogeneous, types of decision making within a society? Noting that the conventional economic wisdom is that society is comprised of a homogenous set of individuals (one type) applying the same decision processes subject to variability environmental conditions (such as wealth) and uncertainty. To draw on quantum physics – there are no ‘flavours’ or handedness in standard economic theory.
I’m currently undertaking a qualitative study into the determinants of parental school choice. The study comprises 22 semi-structured exploratory interviews of Australian parents, principally from Melbourne with some from regional Victoria. Parents come from diverse backgrounds of educational history, educational choice of school type, and cultural.
Following from George Shackle that for choice there need to be alternatives, the socio-economic backgrounds of the parents interviewed are broadly middle socio-economic, from low to high middle class. For the very wealthy there is no alternative to the ‘best’ and for the low socio-economic parents income & behavioural constraints mean that there are no alternatives to their default choice.
Australia is a particularly interesting country to investigate the decision architecture of how parents choose a school for their children due to the absence of strong racial (USA) or social-class preferences (UK). Race and social-class preferences are present in Australia but are not strong enough to completely outweigh other preferences that it is difficult to differentiate preferences associate with teacher quality, student personal development, discipline and community. Race in the USA and social-class in the UK have become dominant proxies for these more differentiated preferences leading to simple binary choice decision making.
Having a range of differentiated preference attributes allow a deeper investigation into how social & family human capital investment preferences are traded-off between each other and the decision strategies that are being used. When there a number of competing preferences which are quite varied, it can be very interesting to find some behaviours that should be present but is consistently missing from the interviews. When choices are binary by proxy it is difficult to find decision structure and gaps.
Parental choice is extraordinarily complex being both inter-generational and inter-temporal in nature. It is subject to parental income, time and regulatory constraints. Choice is subject to high levels of uncertainty over very long time frames. Choices are path dependent, in most case irreversible and subject to imperfect information. Individual choice is also very context dependent, subject to the experiences of parents, their expectations of the future, a duty to their children and emotional attachment.
Where there is a common curriculum, choice is not about the quality of ‘education as knowledge’ per se. At a very high level, education choice is about quality of instruction, teacher quality or program choice, or the quality of the learning environment effected by student peers and culture. Individual preferences of parents are reflected in the type of school they choose for their child to attend. Choice may be a default choice based on constraints, or a choice exercise within a type of schools such as different public schools, or across school types.
The main education choice that this study focuses on is choice of secondary school by parents for their children. Choices in Australia are: independent schools (generally Protestant religion aligned), Catholic schools, government public schools (entry determined by residential boundary), and government selective public schools (academic, music, sport etc.). The state of Victoria also has an accelerated learning program in some publics schools which are not constrained by location of residence by require passing an entrance exam.
A comprehensive review of the Australian school sector can be found in the Gonski Review.
It is important to note that unlike the USA, funding of schools in Australia is from broad based taxes (universal vouchers approach) and not aligned with local property taxes.