Equity & Diversity

Parents Favor ‘Niche’ Schools, Fordham Institute Market Study Finds

By Karla Scoon Reid — August 27, 2013 3 min read
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A new study released today by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that parents have educational preferences that fall into what it calls “niche” markets ranging from vocational education to multiculturalism.

For “What Parents Want: Education Preferences And Trade-Offs,” the Fordham Institute hired Harris Interactive, a market-research firm, to examine which characteristics parents value in a school. The online survey of 2,007 parents of public and private school students in kindergarten through 12th grade was conducted in August 2012.

The study found that most parents surveyed agree on the non-negotiable attributes of a school, including a high-quality core curriculum that emphasizes science, technology, engineering, and math along with instruction that supports the development of critical-thinking and good writing skills.

While those attributes are on most parents’ shortlist of education must-haves, Fordham’s researchers also found that parents want more.

“Not all parents want that plain vanilla,” explained Michael J. Petrilli, executive vice president of the Fordham Institute, in a conference call with reporters last week, “even if that vanilla is high-quality vanilla.”

The study identified what it termed six markets that significant groups of parents ranked as a priority, but that the majority didn’t. The study concludes that these markets emphasize the need for a greater variety of school-choice options for parents:

  • Pragmatists: More than a third of parents, or 36 percent, believed schools offering vocational classes or job-related programs were a priority. These parents were more likely to be less satisfied with their child’s current school and also less likely than others to expect that their child attend college. Most in this group are the parents of boys. The report calls pragmatists “an underserved niche.”
  • Jeffersonians: About 24 percent of parents preferred a school that emphasizes instruction in citizenship, democracy, and leadership. Researchers found little to distinguish this group of parents from the whole. Interestingly, these parents were not more likely to be involved in the PTA or any other volunteer efforts at school.
  • Test-Score Hawks: The 23 percent of parents who look for a school that has “high test scores,” were more likely to be African-American or Hispanic compared to the total survey population. These parents also were more likely to indicate that their child qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. Dara Zeehandelaar, research manager at the Fordham Institute, said for minority parents, test scores are an accessible indicator of a school’s quality. But for white parents whose children may already attend high-achieving schools, those high test scores are more of a given.
  • Multiculturalists: Learning how to work with people from “diverse backgrounds” was the most significant aspect of a school for 22 percent of parents. These parents were more likely to be African-American, liberal, and to live in urban areas.
  • Expressionists: Schools that bolster students’ creative skills, like music and art, were preferred by 15 percent of parents. This group had a high percentage of charter-schools parents. Most were the parents of girls, they identified themselves as liberal, and they lived on the West Coast.
  • Strivers: About 12 percent parents identified that their child being accepted at a “top-tier college” was a priority. Much like the “test-score hawks,” these parents are more likely to be African American or Hispanic. Their children are more likely to be attending a charter school or a school in an urban area.

Petrilli said that, overall, the findings are an endorsement of sorts for the Common Core State Standards since the majority of parents, regardless of their demographics and politics, support high-quality instruction in core subjects. But he argued that parents, once they their educational must-haves are met, want schools that meet their other priorities as well.

“We hope these findings will be helpful to those folks working to satisfy parent demand,” Petrilli added.

Find out what kind of parent you are by taking part in the Fordham Institute’s mini-survey here. Scroll down and click on the “take quiz” tab.

A version of this news article first appeared in the K-12 Parents and the Public blog.