"When Transferees Are Also Parents." By William L. Bainbridge and Steven M. Sundre. Runzheimer Reports on Relocation. November 1993.


By William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D. and Steven M. Sundre, Ph.D.

Surveys of what parents want in schools and communities when they are being recruited.

The work and family movement has been undergirded by the knowledge that family problems affect productivity. Parents' responsibilities for their childrens' schooling can create stress, distraction and interruption in the workplace. When a candidate is considering a new position within a company or at a new firm, the quality of schools and communities can bear heavily on the decision.

A few years ago, the National Association of Realtors found "located near good schools" to be a characteristic of a desirable new home. More recently, in a survey of 4,000 people at E.I. DuPont, researchers found that school quality was a top issue among those parents asked to take a new assignment. In September of 1993, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported results of a study to the Associated Press. This study by physicians alarmed parents and demonstrated the harmful effects moves can have on children. "A family move disrupts the routines, relationships and attachments that define the child's world. Thus, the child has to develop new friendships and adjust to a new curriculum and new teachers." Accurate information about schools and communities can reduce the uncertainty and disruption of a move. Moreover, since property values are greatly associated with school systems, there are financial reasons to gather accurate, comparative data.

The average corporate professional 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.

Concurrent with these trends, a variety of reports appearing in the popular press strongly suggests that "school choice" initiatives are supported by a wide spectrum of Americans without regard to ideological, socioeconomic, or racial background. 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.

Since 1986, our consulting firm has maintained databases on every U.S. public school system and over 14,000 accredited private schools, both in the United States and overseas. SchoolMatch provides information to corporations selecting sites, corporate 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 SchoolMatch.

In the process of assessing 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 closely reflect those preferences. Through this process, clients are defining their school needs and preferences.

It is apparent that information valuable to human resource policy makers can be provided by simply tabulating the results of parent responses to SchoolMatch questionnaires. The real test of "what parents want" as consumers of public education lies in their assessment of alternatives when they actually have a choice.

We have been surprised by the results of our parent survey. When parents are selecting schools for their children, we've discovered they don't conform to conventional wisdom regarding what constitutes "best" or "most important." We've also 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.

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 "biggest" with "best." 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 other reasons. 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 them 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 their offspring are not performing well and are unhappy.

Our experience with thousands of families relocating to take new corporate positions leads to the conclusion that there is no universal definition of what "best" means in a school.

Our analysis suggests that only one school characteristic seems to have nearly universal appeal to parents - low pupil/teacher ratios. It would appear the efforts of teacher unions and associations over the last three decades have been quite effective in convincing the American public - research not withstanding that small classes lead to better schools.

In an ongoing survey we find that 56.7 percent of the parents say they want a school system in the second-highest range (sixty-first to eightieth percentile) on composite scholastic exam scores. Surprisingly, 64.3 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 25.2 percent say they want their child in the highest range (eighty-first to ninety-ninth percentile) on this test of academic rigor. Parents are more inclined (43.9 percent) to 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 it is for the school to earn the highest marks. It is a myth that we can simply look to those schools with the highest test scores as being best for families. It seems nearly everyone understands when selecting colleges, parents look at opportunities for the student to be successful. The same should be true when selecting a school system for younger students.

Analysis of more than 18,000 parental responses also shows the following:

  • A majority of parents (59.6 percent) indicate that "small" or "very small" class sizes for elementary school-age youngsters are preferable. By contrast, 63.2 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, 63.8 percent of parents select a four. Approximately one fifth of parents select the highest salary category.
  • Family-oriented communities appear to be important to parents. Only 2.7 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 0.6 percent prefer "very small" systems, and 1.8 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 66.4 percent of the parents.

Family values, competitiveness and personal excellence are concepts 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. They are demanding an opportunity to extend those strengths and address those opportunities by having a choice where they send their children.

People who use our databases are beginning to understand the importance of comparing school size, teacher salaries, pupil instructional expenditures and characteristics of academic rigor. Legislation in states permitting people to choose schools is prodding parents to sharpen their skills as consumers of education.

William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D. and Steven M. Sundre, Ph.D. are principals in SchoolMatch, a data-based information and counseling service in Columbus, Ohio. SchoolMatch provides comparative school information to thousands of consumers and employees of over 350 companies. The data are used in site selection, relocation and corporate recruitment.