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

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org


About Author

Eric Wearne is an assistant professor of education at a college outside Atlanta, and teaches undergraduate courses on assessment. He also teaches literature at St. John Bosco Academy, a hybrid homeschool/private high school, and is a founding board member at Latin Academy Charter School, a startup middle school in Atlanta. Prior to joining the faculty, Eric served as Deputy Director of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, where he helped design and conduct Georgia’s first statewide standardized testing audit. His work has been published by the Journal of School Choice, the Cato Institute, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He began his career as a high school English teacher, and is a convert to the Catholic faith. He also writes at www.ericwearne.com.

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