"Factors that Parents Want in Their Children's Schools." By William L. Bainbridge and Steven M. Sundre. Educational Research Service Spectrum, Washington, DC. Spring 1991.


By William L. Bainbridge and Steven M. Sundre

The increased mobility of our population combined with the school choice movement has resulted in increasingly large numbers of parents who want to shop for public schools as they do for consumer products. When given an opportunity to select a school or school system, parents in the 1990s are asking for comparative information upon which to base their choice.

Since 1986, our consulting firm has maintained databases on each U.S. public school system and over 7,000 accredited private schools. SchoolMatch provides information to corporations selecting sites and families relocating into specific areas. 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 an alternative "mirror image" approach the client is given an opportunity to replicate the characteristics of a known school community in an unknown area. In either case, the clients are telling us what they are looking for in schools.

Thousands of parents have participated in the SchoolMatch process. SchoolMatch is available through many corporate human resource offices, corporate family support services offered through the leading provider Work/Family Directions, Inc., and large database networks such as the Human Resource Information Network (HRIN) and the non-profit Online Computer Library Center (OCLC). Individual consumers are referred to our toll free number by a variety of sources including state departments of education, national education organizations, real estate firms, and the news media. An early 1991 feature on NBC's Today Show, for example, generated large numbers of inquiries.

In 1989, it became apparent that information valuable to education policy makers could be provided by simply tabulating the results of parent responses to the SchoolMatch questionnaires. It would appear that the real test of "what parents want" as consumers of public education might lie in their assessment of alternatives when they actually have a choice.

We have been surprised by the results of our annual data review and analysis. 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 policy makers 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, are the printed materials from the districts touting 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 their 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 analyses in 1989 and 1990 alike led 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 teacher unions and associations over the last three decades have been quite effective in convincing the American public - research not with-standing - that small classes lead to better schools.

The results of our 1989 surveys were published by USA Today, The  American School Board Journal, and others. At the request of Educational Research Service we recently summarized the results of parents surveys conducted in 1990. Exhibit 1 is a sample of the "guide" which is used to focus parent attention on categories in which they state preferences. Preferences range from "very low" to "very high" on a five point scale. Exhibit 2 is a summary of the 1990 mean responses of parents in each categorical area.

In an ongoing survey we find that 52.8 percent of the parents say they want a school system in the second-highest range (sixty-first to eightieth percentile) on composite scores on scholastic exams. Surprisingly, 70.2 percent of parents indicate the best school for their child would be one that is "average" to "above average" inpupil performance on scholarship examinations. Only 29.2 percent say they want their child in the highest range (eighty-first to ninety-ninth percentile) on this test of academic rigor. More parents (39.5 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.

Analysis of more than 5,300 parental responses also shows the following:

  • A majority of parents (63.4 percent) indicate that "small" or "very small" class sizes for elementary school-age youngsters are preferable. By contrast, 58 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, 61.3 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 3.1 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 0.5 percent prefer "very small" systems and 1.4 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. By contrast 61.4 percent feel that elementary school accreditation is "important" or "very important."

The higher mobility in this country and the school choice movement are bringing about a consumer-oriented approach to education. People who use our databases 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 1990s, consumerism among parents and corporate interest in schools is likely to escalate:

  • The tie between corporate productivity and the success of our nation's schools is becoming more pronounced. Efforts of groups such as 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 recent advocacy position of the liberal Brookings Institution think tank has bolstered the efforts of conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation to win wide support for the concept. Such a movement cannot help but increase parent and corporate interest in stating preferences regarding schools.
  • Parent inquiries on the SchoolMatch telephone lines indicate an increased interest 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.


Mean responses

0 1 2 3 4 5 ____________________________________________ School Building Enrollment Elementary --- 2.9 Secondary --- 3.3 School System Enrollment --- 3.1 School Class Size Elementary --- 1.5 Secondary --- 1.8 Pupil Performance on Scholarship Exams --- 4.0 Award Winning Schools --- 3.6 Elementary School Accreditation --- 3.2 School System Expenditures Buildings --- 3.1 Pupil Instruction --- 4.4 Teacher Salaries --- 3.9 Guidance & Counseling --- 2.6 Vocational/Technical --- 2.5 Percentage of Families with School Age Children --- 3.6 Home Property Values --- 3.5 Per Capita Income --- 3.6 Educational Level --- 4.1 Tax Base --- 3.4 Special Education --- .6


William L. Bainbridge and Steven M. Sundre are principals of SchoolMatch by Public Priority Systems, a data based counseling and information service based in Columbus, Ohio. Both are experienced educational administrators who currently serve as consultants to over 200 major corporations. Their 1990 book, SchoolMatch Guide to Public Schools, is published by the Simon & Schuster Consumer Group/ARCO.