from American School Board Journal - What Do Parents Want



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What do parents want from their public schools? At a time of increased population mobility and a push for school choice, more parents are selecting which schools their children will attend. You might be surprised to learn what they’re looking for. We were when we surveyed parents and corporation officials for our consulting firm, SchoolMatch. Our company maintains a database on school systems across the U.S. and provides information on local schools to corporations and families relocating in specific areas. Parents, we’ve discovered, don’t necessarily look for the "biggest" and the "best" when they have a chance to choose their children’s schools – and they don’t necessarily agree on what constitutes the "best," either.

Hardly a week goes by that we don’t get calls from school administrators suggesting we recommend their school systems to the X.Y.Z. Corporation, which is opening a branch office in the region. We admire these callers’ marketing sensitivity and their initiative, but they lose us when they say, "Of course, you know, we have the best schools in the tri-county area …"

The underlying premise of these calls seems to be that everyone knows how to define "best" when it comes to schools systems. But our experience with thousands of relocating families and hundreds of corporations leads us to conclude otherwise.

For one thing, biggest doesn’t necessarily equate with best although administrators often send us slick brochures about their school systems that make that assumption. It’s common for such literature to tout a specific school system as "the third largest in the metropolitan area" or "the second largest in the state" – as though size were a qualitative measure and not a quantitative one.

But according to our surveys of parents and corporations, people rarely look for extremely large school systems – or extremely small ones, either. They might choose such systems because of other attributes, but extreme size isn’t what they’re after.

Likewise, many school officials equate "best" with "most competitive." Our own experience as administrators probably would have led us to the same conclusion. But in fact, few parents want their children in the most academically rigorous school or the one with the highest test scores. Instead, they want their children in an environment that allows each child to excel.

In our ongoing surveys, we’ve found that a majority of parents (53 percent) say they want a school system in the second highest range (from the 60th percentile to the 80th percentile) on composite scores on scholastic examinations. Surprisingly, almost seven out of ten (69 percent) of the parents we’ve surveyed say the best school for their child is one that is "average" to "above average" in pupil performance on standardized tests.

Less than one-third say they want their child in a top scoring (81st percentile and above) school system. In fact, asked what’s most important to them in choosing a school system, more parents (40 percent) selected instructional expenditures than high-test scores (30 percent) as their highest priority.

The message seems simple but not often understood: It is more important to parents that their children be successful than that the school earn the highest marks.

What does earn high marks among the more than 4,000 parents we’ve surveyed is shown in the graph. We asked respondents to rate various factors – academic rigor, expenditures, size, and community – in terms of their importance in selecting a school system. Analysis of their responses shows these findings:

  • Class size matters – sometimes. Although parents of elementary and secondary students’ alike rated class size at just under two on our one-to-five scale of importance, it turns out they believe different size classes are appropriate at different ages. Average class size varies widely from state to state and school system to school system. So on our surveys, we provide the U.S. averages: 19.3 students per teacher in elementary school classes, and 17.9 students per teacher in secondary school classes. Using these national averages as benchmarks, parents tell us what they’re looking for. And 61 percent of the parents we’ve surveyed say that for elementary school youngsters, they prefer "small" or "very small" classes – that is, classes of considerably fewer than 19 students. By contrast, 56 percent say average size classes - –7 or 18 students – are suitable for junior and senior high school students.
  • Parents want school systems in which teacher salaries are competitive but not necessarily among the highest. On a scale of one to five, with five being the highest salary, 62 percent of parents select a four. Only approximately 20 percent select the highest salary category.
  • Family-oriented communities appear to be important to parents. Only 3 percent of parents say they’re looking for a community where there are fewer school-age children than average.
  • Parents avoid very large or very small public school systems. Less than 1 percent prefer "very Small" systems, and only 1.6 percent look for very large systems.
  • Exemplary school facilities, outstanding guidance and counseling services, and strong vocational education programs don’t appear to be important to many parents, most of whom say average is good enough in these areas. But 68 percent say elementary school accreditation is important or very important.

Just as no two children are identical, no two families have the same definition of an ideal school system. But you can be sure prospective residents of your school district are casting a critical eye on your schools.

The growing school choice movement, combined with a highly mobile population, is bringing about a consumer-oriented approach to education. People who are shopping for schools as they plan to relocate are beginning to understand the importance of comparing school size, teacher salaries, pupil instruction, expenditures, and characteristics of academic rigor. And experience with school choice is sharpening their skills as consumers of education.

is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

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