School & District Management

ETS Analysis Tracks Parent Dissatisfaction

By Lynn Olson — October 27, 1999 8 min read

A substantial portion of the families with children in 55 U.S. cities are dissatisfied with their local public schools, but relatively few are so unhappy that they want to move, according to a report to be released this week by the Educational Testing Service.

The analysis--based on U.S. Census Bureau surveys from 1990 to 1996, depending on the city--found that a majority of households with children were satisfied with their public elementary schools. But in more than half the cities, 16 percent or more of households were not.

For More Information

For a free copy of the report, “School Satisfaction: A Statistical Profile of Cities and Suburbs,” write the Educational Testing Service, Corporate Communications, Rosedale Road, Mail Stop 50-B, Princeton, NJ 08541; (609) 734-1200 or (202) 659-8056.

“Dissatisfaction rates of the size we’re seeing here are something to sit up and take notice of,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, one of the researchers who analyzed the survey data. He observed that most businesses strive to keep consumer-dissatisfaction levels below 5 percent.

The analysis is the first of its kind to look across the only national data set that permits public opinion about schools to be compared between individual cities. It also allows comparisons between cities and their suburbs.

Although households were specifically asked about the elementary schools in their neighborhoods, the data provide clues about the public’s attitudes about schools in general.

The ETS researchers found startling differences between cities. Riverside and Santa Ana, Calif.; Tampa, Fla.; and Virginia Beach, Va., for example, had far fewer unhappy families--under 9 percent.

Cleveland and Oakland, Calif., had the highest levels of dissatisfaction, with 34 percent and 32 percent of families, respectively, reporting they were unhappy with their neighborhood schools.

In those two cities, one-fifth of households with children said they were so dissatisfied they wanted to move. In contrast, in more than three-quarters of the cities surveyed, fewer than 10 percent of households indicated they wanted to move because of poor school quality.

The report, “School Satisfaction: A Statistical Profile of Cities and Suburbs,” was prepared by Mr. Carnevale and Donna M. Desrochers of the Princeton, N.J.-based testing and research company.

It is based on public opinion data from the American Housing Survey, an annual national survey of households by the Census Bureau for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The survey oversamples major metropolitan areas on a rotating basis.

Though the data offer insights into the attitudes of urban parents, the researchers and other experts interviewed last week noted that the surveys from the early to mid-1990s may not reflect aggressive efforts in many cities in recent years to improve their schools.

Market for Alternatives?

One important implication of the ETS findings is that they appear to challenge the contention of voucher proponents that sizable proportions of inner-city families are ready to jump ship when it comes to public education.

The data suggest that “American education will not be privatized any time in the foreseeable future,” said Mr. Carnevale, the vice president for public leadership at the ETS. “We’re not going to enlist the majority to attend private schools or charter schools. It’s not going to happen.”

At the same time, the survey reveals a hard core of dissatisfied consumers.

“If you start hitting up in the double digits on any dissatisfaction number, you’ve got something,” Mr. Carnevale said. “I don’t think this says there isn’t a problem.”

Among the families who say they’re dissatisfied with their public elementary schools, the proportion who want to move ranges from 30 percent to 70 percent, depending on the city.

“The numbers of dissatisfied seem quite high,” said Paul T. Hill, a professor of political science at the University of Washington.

“When you get in St. Louis more than 20 percent dissatisfied, and almost 13 percent who really want to move, that means those dissatisfied people are really pretty intensely dissatisfied,” said Mr. Hill, who is an expert on urban school governance. “It certainly suggests a very large population base for alternatives.”

Across the 55 cities, however, many of the dissatisfied families have already opted out of the system. Among the dissatisfied households with children ages 5-13, between 13.6 percent and 63.7 percent currently enroll their children in private schools, depending on the metropolitan area.

The researchers also found that in those cities least satisfied with public education, children are more likely to attend private schools.

At the same time, about 10 percent of urban parents in all 55 cities who say they are satisfied with the public schools still enroll their children in private education, suggesting that they simply want something more or different for their youngsters.

The Cleveland data, from 1996, might seem to indicate strong support for alternatives to the existing public schools, said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the chief executive officer of that city’s school system. “I’d say people were saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes, that’s what we want,’ ” she said.

But Ms. Byrd-Bennett argued that under a new system that gave free copy of the report, “School Satisfaction: A Statistical Profile of Cities control of the 79,000-student district to the city’s mayor, the tide is turning and people are more willing to give the public schools a chance.

In support of that argument, she cited a poll of city voters conducted in August 1998. It showed that while a majority of residents still rated the city schools as only fair or poor, the proportion who rated them good or excellent had more than doubled in two years.

And roughly 60 percent believed the public schools would continue to improve. Those high expectations, Ms. Byrd-Bennett said, keep the pressure on the district: “Now, we’ve got to put up.”

Crime a Greater Concern

Another significant finding from the ETS analysis is that parents’ concerns about crime typically outweigh their worries about public education.

“No matter how much people say about schools, crime is more of a concern,” said Ms. Desrochers, an ETS senior economist.

In some cities, as many as 50 percent of families said they were bothered by crime, a far higher percentage than were dissatisfied with the public schools.

Anthony P. Carnevale

Not surprisingly, crime concerns were greatest in the largest cities, including Baltimore, Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Washington. Between 41 percent and 50 percent of households in those cities reported being bothered by crime.

Crime also is more likely than school dissatisfaction to prompt residents to move.

Between 10 percent and 30 percent of families in all the cities surveyed wanted to move because of criminal activity. In Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, and St. Louis, more than 26 percent of households said they found crime so objectionable that they wanted to leave.

Indeed, while the quality of public schools may be important to people, the survey findings suggest it is not the most important factor in determining where they live. Of families with children under 16 who had moved in the past year, Ms. Desrochers pointed out, fewer than 10 percent indicated they chose their neighborhoods largely because of the schools.

The appearance of the house or neighborhood, considerations such as public transportation or proximity to leisure activities, and nearness to family, friends, or work typically outweighed school quality in determining where people chose to live.

City, Suburb Split

Not surprisingly, the difference in school satisfaction rates between cities and their suburbs is pronounced in most metropolitan areas. In 60 percent of the cities, the proportion of dissatisfied residents was significantly larger than in the surrounding suburbs.

The greatest differences were in the Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y., and Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan areas, where four times as many city as suburban households were unhappy with their public elementary schools.

In some cities, opinions differ by race or ethnicity as well.

In general, a higher proportion of African-American and Hispanic parents than whites were satisfied with their schools.

The differences were most noticeable in Birmingham, Ala., Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Memphis, Milwaukee, and New Orleans. In those cities, the proportion of satisfied black parents was at least one-third greater than the percentage of satisfied white parents.

Hispanic parents also tend to be more satisfied with the public education system. Still, black and Hispanic households are far happier with the schools in some cities than in others.

In general, poor households were not more dissatisfied with their public schools than affluent households were.

That may seem surprising, given research suggesting that schools in high-poverty areas tend to have fewer resources and to be staffed by less qualified teachers. Most current voucher plans or proposals are targeted specifically at low-income families.

The missing variable, Mr. Carnevale speculated, is the expectations families have for their schools. “What it says is, if you’re a low-income family, you’ve become accustomed to your choices,” he suggested. In some cities, the most dissatisfied are the wealthiest.

Hugh B. Price, the president of the National Urban League and a member of the ETS board, agreed. More urban households would be unhappy with their public schools, he said, if they understood how much more their children could achieve.

“If you’re not aware of what’s possible,” he said, “then you can be satisfied with what you’ve got.”

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