What parents want—and how policymakers can provide it

The dominant approach to public education for most of our nation’s history was for local districts to offer standard-issue schools, mainly neighborhood-based and essentially identical, that reflected some version of the community’s general preferences and values. Because those preferences differed somewhat from place to place, public schools differed somewhat, too. Schools might be a bit more “traditional” in more conservative suburbs and rural communities, a tad more “progressive” in liberal urban locales. But in any given community, there was usually just one flavor for everybody. (Even the exceptions were broadly standardized. For example, there might be a “vocational high school” in the community.) If you didn’t like it, you chose a private school or you moved—kind of like Henry Ford’s approach to car colors.

Today, however, families across much of the country can choose among multiple public-school options. These may include charter schools; magnet schools with various specialized or advanced programs; science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) schools; career or college-preparatory academies; other neighborhood schools (via intra- and sometimes inter-district choice); and even virtual schools. Some cities—New Orleans and Denver may be the best examples—are pursuing “portfolio” approaches, offering a variety of school options throughout their communities. And then there’s the private-school market, which is still accessible primarily to those who can afford the tuition, but is also changing as vouchers and tax credits spread to more states and communities.

But what do parents really want from their children’s schools? Are there patterns and categories? Is it possible to segment the parent market into identifiable groups, each with distinctive preferences? And if so, could we do a better job of creating and delivering the educational options that families most crave for their kids? Wouldn’t it be valuable to know how those groups sort out? Are they identifiable by race? Socio-economic status? Personal politics, ideology, or religion? Geography? And how large are these groups in relation to one another?

Analysts and advocates interested in the “demand” side of school choice have long focused on parents’ education preferences. But parents are too often viewed as a monolith of similar if not identical preferences, with researchers looking to determine what the “average” or “typical” parent seeks in a school—and how that parent makes decisions among types of schools. A groundbreaking new study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, conducted by the well-known market-research firm Harris Interactive, takes a different approach: It attempts to “segment” U.S. parents into distinguishable groups, each with its own values, priorities, and preferences regarding education. Let’s take a look at the major findings.

  • Parents’ “must-haves” do not vary greatly. At the outset, we thought we might find distinct groups of parents with sharply different values and preferences regarding schools. Instead, we found that parents are more alike than different when it comes to basic school attributes. A few key goals and features rose to the top of almost all parents’ lists, including a strong core curriculum in reading and math; an emphasis on STEM subjects; and the development of good study habits, strong critical-thinking skills, and excellent communication skills, both oral and written. These preferences persisted across parents of different races, household incomes, and political ideologies, and were consistently ranked highly by parents regardless of whether their children attended traditional district, public charter, or private schools.
  • Yet some revealing differences are also visible by race, income, and other demographic factors.For example:
    • White parents are somewhat more focused on their children learning “good study habits and self-discipline” than are African American or Hispanic parents. White parents, on the other hand, are less concerned with their child being accepted at a top-tier college;
    • Both African American and Hispanic parents rank “preparation for taking state tests” and “has high test scores” significantly higher than white parents do. (Low-income parents also rank preparing for state tests higher than more affluent parents do.); and
    • The goal of developing “strong critical thinking skills” has a nearly direct relationship to increasing income—the higher the parents’ income, the higher a priority this is.

We identified several school-market “niches” worth considering by those on the “supply side” of school choice. While we didn’t find sharply distinctive “segments” (parents did not fall into neat groups of shared values that differed substantially from other groups), we did identify parents who prioritized individual school attributes or student goals that most other parents viewed as less important. From this, six market niches surfaced.

  1. Pragmatists (36 percent of K–12 parents). These parents ranked highly the school attribute: “Offers vocational classes or job-related programs;”
  2. Jeffersonians (24 percent). These parents ranked highly a school that “emphasizes instruction in citizenship, democracy, and leadership;”
  3. Test-Score Hawks (23 percent). These parents ranked highly the school attribute: “Has high test scores;”
  4. Multiculturalists (22 percent). These parents ranked highly the student goal: “Learns how to work with people from diverse backgrounds;”
  5. Expressionists (15 percent). These parents ranked highly: “Emphasizes arts and music instruction;” and
  6. Strivers (12 percent). These parents ranked highly the student goal: “Is accepted at a top-tier college.”

What does all of this mean? Examining these data, one can make a case for an education system built both on commonality and on differences. Nearly all parents want a strong curriculum in core subjects, a focus on critical thinking skills, and for their children to acquire good study habits. This bodes well for policy initiatives such as the Common Core State Standards, which are designed to deliver much of that.

Yet parents are far from identical. Once their non-negotiables are satisfied—somewhat like the basic needs in Maslow’s well-known hierarchy—many start looking for something special. Some do indeed seek high test scores. Others favor vocational training. Some want diversity. Others value art and music. Some care about their kids going to top-tier colleges. It would be hard, outside a system of school choice, for all of these parents to get what they want.

In the end, it’s not unlike people’s view of cars. Nearly everyone wants a vehicle that’s reliable, safe, and affordable. But once those requisites are supplied, car buyers and drivers have markedly different preferences as to roominess, sportiness, seating capacity, gas mileage, and, of course—pace Henry Ford—color and style. The auto industry has this figured out. The education industry still has a lot to learn.

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