What do parents want from schools?

Posted: July 15, 2010

PHILADELPHIA'S high school seniors will start classes in an educational landscape transformed from the one they entered in kindergarten 13 years ago.

Back then, parents who were unhappy with public schools had two choices: move to the suburbs or cough up tuition for Catholic or private schools. Then came charter schools and things have never been the same since.

As documented in a recent study by the Pew Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative, the city now has 67 publicly funded charter schools with 33,000 students - while the Philadelphia School District has lost 19 percent of its enrollment and tthe Catholic school system has lost 37 percent of its students. Not coincidentally.

Education in Philadelphia now requires much more than signing up your child for a neighborhood or even a Catholic school: now there are many complex, diverse - and often confusing - choices to make that include not only charters but also an array of special schools within the district. As one parent put it, finding a good school for one's child can feel like a full-time job.

So there's a lot of interest in finding out: What do parents want? The Pew study - which included a poll and focus group - provides some answers, and provokes many more.

* Parents like charter schools. They really like them. A whopping 90 percent of parents who had chosen charter schools for their children - and an even higher 92 percent of Catholic school parents - approve of the choices they made.

* Parents don't like district public schools. They really don't like them. In the Pew poll, 58 percent of parents with kids in district schools said the overall job they were doing was "only fair" or poor. Nearly two-thirds of district school parents - 63 percent - said they had considered leaving the district for charter or parochial schools.

* Parents want safety and discipline in school. They really want it. Parents in focus groups rarely mentioned academics unless they were prompted to do so. Their positive evaluations of charter and Catholic schools - and their highly negative assessment of district schools - were based mostly on the perceived availability of safety, discipline and a caring environment.

* Parents want choices. They really want them. Most parents ( 72 percent) said they don't have enough choices in schools, and increasing parental choice is the best way to improve education.

But does parental choice equal more learning for Philadelphia's children? And if the goal is to please parents, where does quality come in?

Nobody can dispute the value of parental involvement in education. Yet, if individual parents are satisfied with their own choices, do they really care if the community as a whole is providing a good education for all of its kids? When education becomes a commodity and parents its perceived consumers, does a desire to "give parents what they're looking for," as a Catholic educator put it, start to trump sound educational policy?

It's worth noting that the popularity of school types, with charters at the top, is almost directly inverse to their academic performance, although some measures are not precise. Most Catholic students score above the norm in reading and math; charters are slightly better than district schools in these measures, but trail in SAT scores.

It's obvious that the "competition" provided by charter schools has prompted major improvements in district schools. Charter schools are here to stay, and both district and Catholic schools need to deal with it. But Father and Mother may not always know best - and educators need to know how to deal with that, too. *