What Do Parents Want from Schools? Hint: Think of Car Shopping

Blog Series, Learning, PreK-12, Smart Parents

Liz Wimmer

Everyone wants a car that is safe, reliable and within their price range. But people’s preferences vary when it comes to other qualities lik the car’s size, gas mileage, color and style.

Parents shop similarly when choosing a school–they want a solid academic program but they may have other unique priorities that range from after-school care to a focus on the arts. A 2013 national survey, What Parents Want: Education Preferences and Trade-Offs by the Thomas Fordham Institute, found that K-12 parents seek similar core qualities– strong reading and math programs, the opportunity to learn STEM (science technology, engineering and math) skills, and an environment where students develop critical thinking and communication skills.

School choice advocates have long thought that parents would choose to enroll their children in schools with high academic outcomes. In fact, that is what most parents say they want. This was confirmed by a 2011 study called Do Parents Do as They Say? Choosing Indianapolis Charter Schools by the National Center on School Choice at Vanderbilt University.

Yet, when given the opportunity to move from a lower performing school academically to a higher performing one, parents did not necessarily make that choice. It turns out that parents don’t uniformly choose higher performing public schools. A research brief describing the results of the Indianapolis study said that just as many students with expanded choices moved to lower performing schools as moved to higher performing ones.

Given that data, researchers have wrestled with the question: Should we better inform parents so they can choose schools based on educational outcomes or should we encourage parents to choose a school that fits their criteria? Turns out the answer is a little of both.

One of the conclusions of the Indianapolis study is that more efforts should be made to share information with parents about schools with higher levels of academic achievement. Then they can use this information to make decisions about where to enroll their children.

At the same time, researchers also realized that parents have other interests in choosing schools for their children. Results of a 2015 study by the Education Research Alliance of New Orleans called What Schools Do Families Want (And Why)? found that parents there choose schools frequently for proximity to their home or extra-curricular activities.

Not surprisingly, a group of experts, in a 2012 commentary in Education Week, What Research Says about School Choice, called for more research to find out what outcomes parents seek from schools, such as helping students to master content or develop character traits.

The 2013 national survey did that work and discovered that parents fell into groups according to these priorities:

These parents (36 percent) said they were looking for vocational or job-related programs. They tended to be parents of boys and to have lower household incomes. They also were less likely to be college graduates.

These parents (24 percent) put teaching about leadership, citizenship and democracy at as a top priority. The group was slightly more likely to be Christian.

Test-score Hawks
Parents in this group (23 percent) valued high test scores and were more likely to have academically gifted children who work hard at school. They tended to expect their child to get a graduate degree. A disproportionately high percent had changed schools because they were dissatisfied with the school or teachers. They were also more likely to be younger and Hispanic or African American.

People in this category (22 percent) ranked “learns how to work with people from diverse backgrounds” very highly. These parents are more likely to be African American, live in an urban area, and identify themselves as politically liberal.

These are parents (15 percent) that rank music and arts instruction highly. They are more likely to describe themselves as politically liberal and to be parents of girls. They are more than three times more likely to be atheist.

Acceptance into a top-tier college is a goal of these parents, who represent 12 percent of parents. They are more likely to be Hispanic or African American and a higher percentage are Catholic. They tend to be less satisfied with their child’s current school.

Parents want an education that delivers solid skills, but they also want to choose unique qualities that reflect their preferences. To succeed in meeting family needs, schools need to provide common high academic standards and a plenty of options in other areas. There’s a lot of work to do. To echo the report based on the 2013 survey: “The auto industry has this figured out. The education industry still has a lot to learn.”

This blog is part of our Smart Parents series in partnership with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. For more information about the project, see Parents, Tell Your Story: How You Empower Student Learning as well as other blogs:

Liz Wimmer is a parent and writer with the National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning at the University of Washington.

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