George Lucas Educational Foundation
School Leadership

What Do Parents Want From Schools?

Key takeaways from four recent polls that asked parents and guardians for their thoughts on education.
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Several recent polls have asked adult members of families their thoughts about education. Media coverage of such polls focuses mostly on findings around school choice. But when we dig deeper, we see an array of information that can be helpful to all school leaders and educators.

I reviewed the following four recent polls and outline some of the takeaways below:

Students Prepared for Life After High School

The polls make one thing clear: Families want their children prepared for life after high school. To that end, parents and guardians reported seeking five things:

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1. Increased and equitable funding. The polls by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and Phi Delta Kappa International (PDK) found a perceived lack of funding to be the biggest problem facing schools in respondents’ communities, with AFT also identifying local and federal education budget cuts as the most worrisome trend in education. The Leadership Conference Education Fund poll found “an overwhelming sense of racial inequity in school funding,” with lack of funding for students of color seen as the biggest cause of racial disparities in education by both African American and Latino parents and families. Ninety percent of African American and 57 percent of Latino adult family members believe schools in their communities do not receive the same amount of funding as schools in white communities.

2. Rigorous academics. The Leadership Conference Education Fund found that more than 80 percent of both African American and Latino parents and guardians believe students should be challenged more in school than they currently are. They consider ensuring the opportunity to take challenging classes (including Advanced Placement and science, technology, engineering, and math courses) a top priority for additional school funding. PDK found that 80 percent of respondents consider whether a school offers technology and engineering classes to be extremely or very important in measuring quality. And EdNext found high support among families (82 percent) for allowing students to take advanced courses online if those aren’t offered at their school sites.

3. Career and technical education. Ninety-four percent of public school parents and guardians approve of expanding access to career and technical education as a strategy to improve public education, according to the AFT poll. The Leadership Conference Education Fund also found support for expanding vocational classes, with 76 percent of African American and 73 percent of Latino families considering it an important use of additional school funds. And PDK found that 86 percent of respondents believe schools should offer certificate or licensure programs.

4. Technology. EdNext found that 77 percent of parents support schools in their community providing students with laptop computers for classroom use, though only 33 percent support allowing students to use their smartphones in the classroom. The Leadership Conference Education Fund reports that African American families consider ensuring that students have access to computers and other technology in school the second-highest priority for additional school funding (after ensuring that there are enough books and instructional materials), with 94 percent saying it is one of the most important or very important uses. Eighty-eight percent of Latino families agree.

5. Postsecondary education for their children. Parents and guardians say that making sure students graduate with the knowledge and academic skills needed to succeed in college is one of schools’ most important goals (second only to providing a safe and secure environment for children), according to the AFT poll. PDK found that 61 percent of public school parents and guardians expect their children to attend college full-time (47 percent at a four-year school, 7 percent at a two-year, 4 percent at a vocational program, and some uncertain), with 22 percent of families expecting part-time work and study. EdNext reported that, without information on costs or benefits, 89 percent of the public would prefer that their child attend college, with 67 percent preferring a four-year degree and 22 percent a two-year.

How Families Judge School Quality

While some states still judge schools solely based on standardized test scores, these polls reveal that most parents and guardians do not. PDK found that 49 percent of Americans think those tests don’t measure what is important to them (46 percent think they do).

In the Leadership Conference Education Fund poll, families cite a child’s report card and the school’s student-teacher ratio as the most important pieces of information in determining effectiveness. PDK found that whether a school helps students learn interpersonal skills rates as the most important factor in school quality for the highest proportion of respondents (36 percent), with the next two being access to technology and engineering courses (25 percent) and access to advanced academic courses (14 percent).

What Next?

There are many other interesting findings in each of these polls. I encourage school leaders and educators to read the source material to learn more about the views of parents and guardians on these and other issues, including school choice, diversity, wraparound services, and more.

But what can educators do with this information? To start, reflect on whether these findings seem relevant in your own community. Consider using them to inform programming choices and communications efforts with both families and the public, and as a tool in advocating for new resources. Or use them to start a conversation about what is needed to ensure that your school is meeting the needs of the students, families, and communities it serves.