What Do Parents Value in Education?

"Families with children in higher poverty and minority schools in the district … are more likely to request teachers who provide high 'value-added' in terms of student achievement scores."

In many school districts across the United States parents can express a preference for their child's elementary school teacher. Given that all teachers have distinct strengths and weaknesses, the requests that parents make may provide insight into the things they value in education.

In What Do Parents Value in Education? An Empirical Investigation of Parents' Revealed Preferences for Teachers (NBER Working Paper No. 11494), a study by Brian Jacob and Lars Lefgren, the findings are somewhat surprising. It seems that, on average, parents strongly prefer teachers whom principals describe as the most popular with students - that is, those who are good at promoting student satisfaction. In contrast, parents place relatively less value on a teacher's ability to raise standardized mathematics or reading achievement scores. This suggests that "softer" teacher attributes may be quite important to parents.

However, the average preference masks striking differences across family demographics. Families with children in higher poverty and minority schools in the district strongly value student achievement. When they make requests, they are more likely to pick teachers who provide high "value-added" in terms of student achievement scores and teachers whom the principal rates highly in terms of factors such as organization, classroom management, and enhancing student achievement. However, these parents were essentially indifferent to the principal's report of a teacher's ability to promote student satisfaction. Interestingly, the results are exactly reversed for families in higher-income schools. These parents are most likely to request teachers whom the principal describes as "a good role model" and/or good at promoting student satisfaction. They do not choose teachers who provide high "value-added" in terms of student achievement, or who receive high scores in this area from their principal.

The authors suggest several potential explanations for this finding. First, they note that education should be viewed as a consumption good as well as an investment good, and that it is possible that wealthier parents simply place a higher premium on the consumption value of schooling. Second, the authors note that these findings are consistent with a declining marginal utility of achievement on the part of parents. In other words, wealthier parents may believe that their children already have something of a head start in basic reading and math skills, so they value a strictly achievement-oriented teacher less highly than more disadvantaged parents whose children may not have these basic skills. More generally, these results suggest that what parents want from school is likely to depend on family circumstances as well as on parent preferences.

Since advantaged and disadvantaged parents exhibit these differences in regards to particular educational policies or programs, there are "important implications for current school reform strategies," the authors note. For example, well-to-do and poor communities are likely to react quite differently to educational accountability policies, such as those embodied in the "No Child Left Behind" program of President Bush. Another risk is that school choice could lead to segregation across demographic groups, driven by the preferences of the parents.

At the same time, though, the findings of this research imply that low-income families are quite able to recognize high quality teachers, and that they strongly value good achievement levels for their children. "This result belies the concern that school choice programs will not benefit poor children because their parents will not fully recognize or sufficiently value academic achievement," Jacobs and Lefgren write.

This study also suggests that the preference of parents to have their children attending racial or socially homogenous schools, a factor found in earlier studies, may not reflect a desire for segregation per se, but instead may reflect an interest in a particular type of curriculum or pedagogy. The socioeconomic composition of the school may merely serve as a signal for certain educational practices.

The data for the study comes from a mid-size school district in the western United States. The students are 73 percent white, and 21 percent Latino. Some 48 percent of all students receive free or reduced price lunch, which the authors use as a measure of whether families are poor. Achievement levels in district are almost exactly at the average of the nation.

With the cooperation of the district authorities, the authors were able to collect parental requests for specific elementary school teachers during the 2003-4 and 2004-5 school years. The final sample consisted of 251 teachers who taught core academic subjects in grades 2 to 6 in eleven elementary schools. In this sample, roughly 30 percent of parents requested a teacher each year and 84 percent of teachers received at least one parental request. The average number of requests for those teachers was eight. Principals reported that they were generally able to honor almost all requests, giving parents an incentive to truthfully reveal their first preference.

These requests were then linked to a variety of teacher characteristics, such as age, experience, educational attainment, undergraduate and graduate institution attended, and teacher license and certification information.

In addition, the authors used individual student test scores and demographic information to create "value-added" measures of each teacher's effectiveness at raising student achievement, which helped give an indication of the effectiveness of the teachers. Finally, the authors took a survey of principals in February 2003, asking them to confidentially evaluate their teachers on a variety of dimensions, including dedication and work ethic, classroom management, parent satisfaction, positive relationship with administrators, and ability to raise math and reading scores

-- David R. Francis

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