What Do Parents Want? High Standards … and Choices

What do parents want from schools?

After conducting a survey of more than 2,000 parents nationwide, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute discovered a handful of “must-haves” for parents with children in school—no matter their race, income level, political ideology, or the type of school where they send their children (traditional public, public charter, or private).

These findings are summarized in Fordham’s report released in August, What Parents Want: Education Preferences and Trade-Offs.
Any parent wants his or her child to succeed. And, not surprisingly, all of parents’ must-have characteristics for schools relate to holding students to a high bar so that they can succeed later in school and/or in their careers:

  • a strong core curriculum in reading and math;
  • emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM);
  • development of good study habits;
  • strong critical thinking skills;
  • excellent verbal and written communication skills.

These attributes align with Alabama’s plan for its schools under the State Board of Education’s Plan 2020, and also more broadly with schools voluntary efforts around the country. “This bodes well for policy initiatives such as the Common Core State Standards, which are designed to deliver much of that,” the report says. Plan 2020 includes fully implementing the College and Career Ready Standards, in addition to focusing on meeting the needs of the whole child.

Parents do not want identical schools, however, and “niches” of parents value certain characteristics over others. “Once their non-negotiables are satisfied… many [parents] start looking for something special,” says the report about parents.

Fordham breaks down parents into six niches in the educational market:

  1. “Pragmatists” who value career-tech education and job-related programs.
  2. “Jeffersonians” who want a school that “emphasizes instruction in citizenship, democracy, and leadership.”
  3. “Test-Score Hawks” who want a school with high standardized test scores. “Parents in this niche are more likely than others to have academically gifted children,” says the report.
  4. “Multiculturalists” who want their children to learn how to work with others from different backgrounds.
  5. “Expressionists” who value music and art instruction. While parents in this group are not more likely to send their children to private school, they are more likely to choose public charter schools over traditional public schools.
  6. “Strivers” who seek to ensure their children are accepted to top-tier colleges. This group is more likely to be dissatisfied with their children’s schools than the general population, and many of them have changed schools due to this dissatisfaction.

Broadly speaking—no matter the demographics—parents do not want one-size-fits all schools that don’t meet their children’s needs.

“It would be hard, outside a system of school choice, for all of these parents to get what they want… A smart foundation of common, high academic standards coupled with plenty of school choices is probably the best way to give parents what they want.”

Some systems are recognizing this demand for variety in order to best meet students’ needs and are offering more public education options. These include charter schools, magnet schools, “various specialized or advanced programs,” STEM-focused schools, career academies, college-prep academies, various types of neighborhood schools that can include both intra- and inter-district choice, and even virtual schools.

In particular, Fordham highlights Denver and New Orleans, which it explains are pursuing “portfolio” approaches that offer their citizens this diverse array of options for public school.

Click here the access the full report.