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New Research Asks, “What do parents want from education?”

• Sam Duell


A division of the Walton Family Foundation commissioned new qualitative research to understand what parents want from education. While the results may seem obvious to parents, they might be surprising to policymakers.

The research, What Parents Want from Education: The Case for Real Choices, was presented at the National Charter School Conference last week along with an announcement of the creation of a new $100 million fund that invests in new and different school models regardless of their school governance type. Meaning that in addition to the public charter school work they already do, the Walton Family Foundation will likely invest in traditional public schools, magnet schools and private schools that offer distinctly different education.

Why the investment? It seems to be a direct response to what they found when they surveyed over 2,000 parents last fall. Here’s a snapshot of some of the findings from What Parents Want from Education.

Parents want choices that are accessible and distinct.

Available school models are not always accessible (for example, the commute time to an “available” school could make it an unrealistic option for a family), and available school models aren’t necessarily all that different from each other. And if education models were divided into three groups (traditional models, student-centered models and models that blend the two), parents would prefer a proportionally balanced set of choices of the three categories.

Please note: these categories are defined in the research and come from the language of the parents in the survey. There may be a case for an adapted lexicon here based on the language that parents understand and are already using.

Parents believe education should fit the child—the child shouldn’t have to fit the education.

The research defines the “Student Fit Model of Education,” as one that would unite parents and communities across lines of division. The report posits that if we actually provided families with real and distinct choices, then they could decide to attend the model that best fits their child while respecting the existence and value of several distinct school models all within a given local geographic area.

Most parents want the same things for their children regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.

Using a motivational research structure developed by Artemis Strategy Group, the research revealed that 54 percent of parents care most about the development of life skills. This is an important point because some of the rhetoric in the past claimed that parents of one race or ethnicity want different things from education than parents of a different race or ethnicity. It turns out that parents prefer pluralism in education, but not because of their race, ethnicity or income. Parents cherish differences in education models because they recognize differences in their own children.

Parents care about academic achievement as a minimal prerequisite to a quality education. They want more than that.

As material from the report says, “Educators and advocates are focused on what makes good education, but parents are focused on what makes good people.” They say the ideal education is a holistic one that develops social and emotional skills in conjunction and in parity with the development of intellectual skills. The converse is just as striking: the report observes only 7 percent of parents primarily focus on academic skills to the exclusion of other skills.

This research is strong evidence that parents have much higher (and possibly different) expectations than previously understood by policymakers. Sure, parents care about academics. But they want so much more for their children.

It’s high time policymakers build and support mechanisms to expand real choices. Public charter schools are a critical lever to meet these lofty expectations, and so are policies that encourage private school choice, course access, personalized learning, college and career readiness and traditional models of education. We need it all, so let’s get to work.

About the author

Sam Duell

Before Sam joined ExcelinEd as the Associate Policy Director for Charter Schools, he was a special education teacher, a school and central office administrator, the Executive Director of School Choice at Oklahoma’s department of education and the Managing Director of OPSRC’s Education Collaborative. In every position, Sam worked creatively to meet student needs. He founded the Integrated Support Program at Fischer Middle School in San Jose, California to increase the number and percentage of students with learning disabilities who have access to the general education classroom. He was the first administrator of Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, the authorizer for online schools in Oklahoma. And he co-founded a statewide afterschool network called the Oklahoma Partnership for Expanded Learning to organize and advocate for expanded learning opportunities after school and during the summer. Sam’s current interests include charter schools and their role in a functional, thriving democracy.