What Do Parents Want in a School?


The Thomas B. Fordham institute recently published an interesting study about American parents.  Many education reports focus on test score-based accountability.  This paper is different in that it reports not on schools’ test scores, but on why parents choose the schools they do.  In partnership with Harris Interactive, Fordham has done some valuable market research into what parents across the country value in the schools they choose.

So what do parents say they want in a school, according to Fordham?  Parents were asked to rank values against each other, and Fordham/Harris used the responses to judge what parent valued most in schools. In the chart below, 100 is an average score; numbers above that are items parents valued more, and numbers below 100 are items they valued less.  The authors also note that “the least critical goals are not unimportant; rather, they are less important compared to the other goals and characteristics.”

The most common response was “a strong core curriculum in reading and mathematics.”  Other highly-rated aspects include “emphasizes science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, and “good study habits and self-discipline.”

Some of the lowest-rated aspects included “fluency in a foreign language” and “an appreciation for nature.”  “School uniforms” was the lowest-rated response. One item that scored below average, which I found interesting, was “curriculum is compatible with personal beliefs.”  But there may be some reasons for that, as I will share below.


Fordham also categorizes parents into six types (you can take a short version of the questionnaire to see which category you’d fit in here).  Per the Executive Summary:

  • Pragmatists (36 percent of K–12 parents) assign high value to schools that, “offer vocational classes or job-related programs.” Compared to the total parent population, Pragmatists have lower household incomes, are less likely themselves to have graduated from college, and are more likely to be parents of boys.
  • Jeffersonians (24 percent) prefer a school that “emphasizes instruction in citizenship, democracy, and leadership,” although they are no more likely than other parents to be active in their communities or schools.
  • Test-Score Hawks (23 percent) look for a school that “has high test scores.” Such parents are more likely to have academically gifted children who put more effort into school. They are also more likely to set high expectations for their children, push them to excel, and expect them to earn graduate degrees. Test-Score Hawks are also more apt to report that their child has changed schools because, as parents, they were dissatisfied with the school or its teachers.
  • Multiculturalists (22 percent) laud the student goal: “learns how to work with people from diverse backgrounds.” They are more likely to be African American, to self-identify as liberal, and to live in an urban area.
  • Expressionists (15 percent) want a school that “emphasizes arts and music instruction.” They are more likely to be parents of girls and to identify as liberal; they are less likely to be Christian. (In fact, they are three times more likely to self-identify as atheists.)
  • Strivers (12 percent) assign importance to their child being “accepted at a top-tier college.” Strivers are far more likely to be African American and Hispanic. They are also more apt to be Catholic. But they do not differ from the total population in terms of their own educational attainment.

Other interesting notes:

-The introduction to the report includes a note that “Nearly all parents want a strong curriculum in the core subject areas, a focus on critical thinking skills, and for their children to learn good study habits. This bodes well for policy initiatives such as the Common Core State Standards, which are designed to deliver much of that.”  This is debatable; Common Core is more likely to be harmful to school choice.  It just feels like the authors are trying too hard to show their support by including this statement.  But the report ends with some good recommendations, like supporting a “portfolio” approach to the creation of schools.

-If a parent answered that their children were homeschooled, they did not continue further in the study.  Excluding homeschoolers this way is a valid choice for the purposes of a survey designed to find out what kinds of schools parents want to send their children to, and the authors note the reason for their decision to do so. But this would certainly affect the results of the survey: roughly 2 million students are homeschooled across America, about the same number of students in any kind of charter school.  Ostensibly just about every one of these homeschooling parents wants their children’s education to include a “curriculum…compatible with personal beliefs.”  So more many more parents, taken as a whole, care about this than the study results seem to indicate.

-36 percent of survey respondents reported having children identified as gifted or “exceptionally talented in academics.”  This is not the average nationwide…it’s more like 6-7 percent formally enrolled in gifted programs at a given time.  I have no idea what effect adjusting for this would have on the results, but, again, it’s just an interesting point that isn’t mentioned in detail in the report.

We do tend to focus too much on the bean-counting aspects when we try to gauge school quality.  And test scores are not the best way to judge school quality, nor the main reason many parents choose the schools they do.  This paper gets at a very important and under-researched aspect of American schools



  • Libby Smith

    All of the people I know who home school their children and a large number who are considering this do so because they are unhappy with the schools available to them. Most of this is based on personal and religious values. It seems to me that excluding home schoolers is skewing the results. Also a number of people I know who are considering home schooling are doing so because they are unhappy with the Common Core Curriculum which is being implemented, particularly the Math Curriculum. They find it is teaching inefficient, time consuming ways of calculation which are useless in the work place where quick calculations are necessary.

  • Will

    I do not see Common Core being harmful to school ch0ice. In what way? Most of those in our state who are against Common Core are the same who are against anything from the federal level. Those people have no problem with the state taking over what used to be locally controlled education.

  • mominvermont

    Too bad they didn’t ask about sexual education. I wonder if it would rank lower than an appreciation for nature.

  • Chris

    Why do you say, “Excluding homeschoolers this way is a valid choice for the purposes of a survey designed to find out what kinds of schools parents want to send their children to, and the authors note the reason for their decision to do so”? Many, if not most, homeschooling parents do so because the kind of school they want to send their kids to is too far or too expensive, not because they don’t want to send their kids to a school, right?



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