My kids, your kids, our kids: What parents and the public want from schools


Teachers College Record

2017, vol. 119, n°11

Departments: Management & Human Resources

Background/Context: School choice reforms could strengthen parents' influence on school behaviors, since schools must appeal to parents in order to operate. If parents' desires for schools differ from the broader public's desires for schools, then schools might pursue different goals and activities in systems emphasizing school choice. One popular hypothesis is that schoolchoosing parents, more than the public, want schools to prioritize their own students' private interests over more collective social, economic, and political interests. Purpose/Objective: We compare parents' desires for their own children's schools with the U.S. public's desires for public schools. We make these comparisons with respect to the abstract goals that schools pursue, as well as schools' more tangible behaviors. Population/Participants/Subjects: We administered an online survey to nationally representative samples of parents and adults. We administered a second online survey to a national sample of adults. Intervention/Program/Practice: The article consists of two studies. Study 1 compares parents' and the public's beliefs about which abstract goals schools should prioritize. Respondents were randomly assigned to consider either schools in their community, schools around the country, or, if they had children, their own children's schools. They chose from goals that prioritized their students' professional achievement ("Private Success"), the economy's needs ("Shared Economic Health"), and more collective social and political needs ("Democratic Character"). Study 2 compares parents' and the public's beliefs about how schools should actually behave. Respondents were randomly assigned to consider either schools in their community, schools around the country, or their own children's schools. We asked about the basic structure and content of the school day, how schools should teach, and how to evaluate school performance. Research Design: The studies consist of randomized experiments and related statistical analysis. Findings/Results: We find remarkably little difference between parents' desires for their children's schools and the public's desires for public schools. This is true both for the abstract goals that schools pursue and for schools' more tangible behaviors. Conclusions/Recommendations: Our findings suggest that the hypothesis that parents want schools to focus on their students' private success at the expense of more collective goals is oversimplified. It may be, for example, that parents want their children to be well rounded in ways that also serve more collective social, political, and economic interests. We observe divisions in Americans' views of the goals that schools should pursue, but these divisions are more connected to their political affiliation than parent status (with Republicans more focused than Democrats on Private Success)