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What Parents Really Look For in a School

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The average American family moves every three years. Increasingly, school-choice programs are being developed and implemented at the school-district or state level. The combination of these two trends has resulted in increasingly large numbers of parents who want to shop for public schools, just as they do for consumer products. More and more parents are beginning to ask for comparative information about schools in order to make the choice they believe is best for their family.

Recent national studies conducted by corporate management-consulting firms such as Moran Stahl & Boyer and Runzheimer International and associations such as the National Association of Realtors document the fact that schools are consistently among the top three concerns of relocating families. Concurrent with this trend, last year 10 states approved some form of new choice legislation, 37 states had legislation pending in one form or another, and at least 12 states had citizen coalitions working on choice initiatives or proposals. A variety of reports appearing in the popular press strongly suggest that school-choice initiatives are supported by a wide spectrum of Americans without regard to ideological, socioeconomic, or racial background.

Further evidence suggests that parents are becoming increasingly involved in defining the character and focus of their school systems. Educational-association newsletters, popular print media, and television specials are replete with examples of American adults seeking to make a positive impact on public education. Parents volunteer more frequently in the classroom, citizen groups develop and implement support programs, and efforts are made to evaluate and compare outcomes of the educational process. School systems are gearing up to meet demands for increased consumer accountability--whether the consumer be student, parent, employer, or government policymaker.

Many educational, corporate, and political leaders have stated positions on educational reform. Some ask "What do parents want?'' but little systematic effort has been made to find out. The commentary of thousands of parents responding to SchoolMatch questionnaires sheds some concrete, and perhaps unexpected, light on the subject.

Since 1986, our consulting firm has maintained data bases on each U.S. public school system and over 10,000 accredited private schools both in the United States and overseas. SchoolMatch provides information to corporations selecting sites, families relocating into specific areas, and parents interested in making a choice between neighboring school systems. Most frequently, families relocating across school-district, state, or international boundaries contact us for assistance.

In the process of assessing the clients' preferences, we ask them to complete questionnaires. From the preferences they provide, we "match'' them with schools in any part of the country that most reflect those preferences. Through the process, clients are telling us what they are looking for in schools.

We have been surprised by the results of our review of parent responses and commentary. When parents are selecting schools for their children, we've discovered, they don't conform to conventional wisdom on what constitutes "best'' or "most important.'' We've learned that parents don't necessarily look for the "biggest,'' the "highest,'' or the "best'' when they have a chance to choose their children's schools, and they don't necessarily agree on what constitutes "biggest,'' "highest,'' or "best'' either.

Just as no two children are identical, no two families have exactly the same definition of an ideal school system. Preferences regarding indicators such as academic rigor, school-system expenditures, school size, and community characteristics vary with each family.

In our experience with relocating families and corporations, we have come to the conclusion that school policymakers need to do some serious market research regarding the desires of prospects and clients. School officials, for example, will often send us literature which equates "best'' with "biggest.'' Statements such as "the third-largest school system in the metropolitan area'' are common--as though size were a qualitative measure and not a quantitative one.

Our surveys of parents and corporations rarely indicate that anyone is looking for extremely large or extremely small school systems, though they may choose such systems for their other characteristics. Why then do the printed materials from the districts tout a characteristic which is not viewed as appealing to the consumer?

Likewise, some people equate "best'' with "most competitive.'' Our experience as administrators probably would have led to the same conclusion. As school-information specialists, however, we have learned that few parents want their child in the most academically rigorous school or the one with the highest test scores. Parents tend to want their children in an environment that allows the children to excel and develop confidence in their abilities. Many parents who have previous experience in choosing schools often relate anecdotes of enrolling their children in "top schools,'' only to find that their offspring are not performing well and are unhappy.

Nearly every week we get calls from school administrators suggesting that we recommend their school system to a corporation which is considering a major move into their area. We admire their initiative, but they lose us when they say, "Of course, you know, we have the best schools in the metropolitan area.'' The underlying premise of these calls seems to be that everyone knows how to define "best'' when it comes to school systems. But our experience with thousands of relocating families and hundreds of corporations leads us to conclude otherwise.

Our analysis leads to the conclusion that only one school characteristic seems to have nearly universal appeal to parents--low pupil-teacher ratios. It would appear that the efforts of teachers' unions and associations over the last three decades have been quite effective in convincing the American public--research notwithstanding--that small classes lead to better schools.

In an ongoing survey we find that 53.2 percent of the parents say they want a school system in the second-highest range (61st to 80th percentile) on composite scores on scholastic exams. Surprisingly, 69.6 percent of parents indicate the best school for their child would be one that is "average'' to "above average'' in pupil performance on scholarship examinations. Only 28.3 percent say they want their child in the highest range (81st to 99th percentile) on this test of academic rigor. More parents (40.1 percent) select instructional expenditures in the highest range.

The message is clear but not often understood: It is more important to parents that their children are successful than that the school earns the highest marks. It is a myth that we can simply look to the schools with the highest test scores as the best for families. It seems that nearly everyone understands that when selecting colleges, parents look at opportunities for the student to be successful. Just as in the case of the colleges, the academically most rigorous school may not be suited for every family.

Analysis of more than 14,000 parental responses also shows the following:

  • A majority of parents (62.7 percent) indicate that "small'' or "very small'' class sizes for elementary school-age youngsters are preferable. By contrast, 57 percent of parents feel that "average'' class sizes are suitable for junior and senior high school students.
  • Parents want school systems where teacher salaries are competitive but not necessarily among the highest. On a scale of one to five, with five being the highest, 62.8 percent of parents select a four. Approximately a fifth of parents select the highest salary category.
  • Family-oriented communities appear to be important to parents. Only 2.9 percent look for communities with fewer than average numbers of school-age children.
  • Parents tend to avoid very large or very small public school systems. Only 0.7 percent prefer "very small'' systems, and 1.6 percent look for "very large'' systems.

Exemplary school facilities, guidance and counseling, and vocational education do not appear to be important to many parents. Respondents lean toward "average'' in these areas. In most cases only parents whose children have special needs show much interest in special-education programs. Elementary school accreditation is "important'' or "very important'' to 63.2 percent of the parents.

Family values, competitiveness, and personal excellence are concepts that are returning to the forefront in American life. Increasingly, Americans are challenging their schools to nurture and extend this orientation. A more mobile society has allowed many parents to "see what's out there'' as they move from community to community. Increasingly, parents are able to compare and contrast school-system strengths and opportunities. And they are demanding an opportunity to extend those strengths and address those opportunities by having a choice in where they send their children.

People who use our data bases are beginning to understand the importance of comparing school size, teacher salaries, pupil-instruction expenditures, and characteristics of academic rigor. Legislation in states permitting people to choose schools is sharpening skills of parents as consumers of education.

As we look to the end of the century, consumerism among parents and corporate interest in schools are likely to escalate. In our opinion:

  • The tie between corporate productivity and the success of our nation's schools is becoming more pronounced. Efforts of groups such as the New American Schools Development Corporation, the National Alliance of Business, the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Center for Work Force Preparation and Quality Education, and the Council for Aid to Education could move involvement of business in the schools from the level of novelty to one which begins clearly stating their needs and preferences--and demanding results. Corporations are likely to tie school participation in philanthropy to their own strategic objectives.
  • The school-choice movement is not likely to abate. The advocacy position of the liberal Brookings Institution has bolstered the efforts of conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation to win wide support for the concept. A Center for Choice in Education has been established by the U.S. Education Department. Such a movement cannot help but increase parent and corporate interest in stating preferences regarding schools.
  • Parents will become more interested in areas such as extended-day programs, extracurricular activities, programs for the gifted, school safety, computers and interactive videos, and tax-support issues.
  • School systems will continue to show interest in opportunities to compare themselves with like school districts--wherever they exist throughout the country. SchoolMatch and some state departments of education have developed programs to provide such opportunities for valid comparisons of academic programs and community orientations.

William L. Bainbridge and Steven M. Sundre are principals in SchoolMatch, a data-based information and counseling service in Columbus, Ohio.

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