An Interview with Dara Zeehandelaar: – What Parents Want: Preferences and Trade-offs

Sep 17, 2013 by

Bryan Barnes & Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

Dara Zeehandelaar is research manager at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she manages Fordham’s research pipeline, develops study ideas and designs, and conducts research for Fordham’s in-house projects. She completed her Ph.D. in Urban Education Policy at the University of Southern California in 2012, working in the areas of teacher labor markets, school board-teachers’ union relationships, and district reform policy design and implementation. In 2013, she earned the Dissertation of the Year award from the Districts in Research and Reform special interest group of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). Prior to her doctoral work, she served as a high school mathematics teacher and summer-school coordinator in Washington D.C. public schools. A Los Angeles native and Washington D.C. resident, Dr. Zeehandelaar also holds a M.S. in astrophysics from the University of Maryland and an M.A.T. from American University.

  1. Dara, first of all, could you discuss the title of the book and then all of the contributors to this book or latest report?

The title of the report really is homage to what we tried to do—look at what parents want in our K–12 schools and what goals they have for their children. The title emphasizes that we asked parents to prioritize attributes. Asking what parents wanted from an all-you-can eat buffet of options is interesting, but not realistic because schools don’t have unlimited resources. So instead, we used a market research approach to see what parents preferred when they were forced to prioritize from a list of competing demands. Which attributes of an ideal school and education system came out on top, and where were parents willing to make trade-offs?

Harris Interactive conducted the market research study. Fordham and Harris Interactive collaborated on survey design, data analysis, and reporting on the research findings, and Fordham provided additional commentary. Fordham’s Dara Zeehandelaar and Amber M. Winkler edited the report, and Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Michael J. Petrilli contributed the forward.

  1. How did you go about studying this issue?

Fordham (with data collection and analysis by the leading market-research firm Harris Interactive) surveyed more than 2,000 parents to see their values, priorities, and preferences regarding education. Parents were presented with a list of five random educational goals and asked to choose the most and least critical among the list. This task was repeated multiple times so we could see the accurate importance of each characteristic. From this, we were able to create a ranked list of attributes. The list included non-negotiable items of high importance like schools that have a strong core curriculum in reading and math and emphasize science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, and students who learn good study habits, strong critical thinking skills, and strong communication skills. Interestingly, these must-haves were universal, with little to no variation among parents of different races or ethnicities, income levels, political ideologies, or locations.

  1. Do you find that the reasoning behind low-income families gravitating to vocational schools and being pragmatists is because they want their children to get out of the “neighborhood”?

Just to clarify: we asked parents what the attributes of an ideal school would be, not the attributes of the school where their child is currently enrolled. So low-income parents were more likely than the parent population to rank vocational education as a more critical attribute of an ideal school. But the study can’t determine whether or not low-income parents were more likely to actually send their child to a vocational school and/or a traditional school that offered vocational education.

This is two separate questions: one about low-income families and the other about Pragmatists. Pragmatists are more likely to be low-income parents, but they are not exclusively so. Low-income parents as a group (less than $35K/year), actually ranked that their child “understands how important it is to go to college” as slightly more important than did higher-income parents (more than $75K/year). Low-income parents ranked that their child “is prepared for college” no differently than high-income parents. But Pragmatists, the subset of parents who ranked vocational education much higher than the entire parent population did, are different. They placed slightly less importance on their child being prepared for college than the total population. Pragmatists are more likely to have a child with learning disabilities and not be as strong academically, so it could be that this (rather than income) is the motivating factor behind their choice as they believe that their child is not destined for college.

A shorter answer: Pragmatists don’t necessarily want their child to get out of the neighborhood – rather, they want their child to be prepared for life after high school (which for them, might not mean college), which for them, means vocational classes. But low-income parents as a group might, and want schools to provide both vocational training for the job market and academic preparation for college.

4). Would you say that ‘Jeffersonians’ are also more interested in history and parents make sure that their children understand “where they came from?”

Jeffersonians are defined by the high priority they place on schools that emphasize instruction in citizenship, democracy, and leadership. Compared to the parent population, the group also put a higher priority on schools that emphasize character development, ethics, and morality, and teach a curriculum that is compatible with their personal beliefs. So it might follow that history would be an important academic topic, but it is equally credible that these parents are more concerned that schools offer direct instruction, character education, and ethics (and are less concerned with academics on the whole). (Note that compared to the population, Jeffersonians find it less critical that schools take a traditional approach to learning and prepare students for taking state tests.)

5) Value judgment- is there anything wrong with that?

This is about school choice. Parents have different demands on the education system based on their values and priorities. Our study shows that a core curriculum in reading and math and a STEM education are high priorities to nearly all parents. After that, a robust school choice environment will allow parents to find the best school for that something extra. For Jeffersonians, it’s that character emphasis.

6) Do you see parents of children with moderate to severe disabilities gravitating more toward being Pragmatists or do you think they “settle” for a school that can provide for the needs of their child?

Part of this question is also addressed by #3 above.

Pragmatists are more likely to report having a child with a learning disability (12 percent vs. 8 percent of the total population). Job training is clearly an important option for these parents, especially because as a group Pragmatists’ children do not perform as well as their peers, and they find it less important that their children are prepared for college. (Pragmatists are a bit less satisfied with their child’s current school compared to the total population, indicating this is an underserved niche.)

7) In which of these groups would you classify teachers as? Or, do you think it would depend on the subject that they are teaching? Or the age they are teaching?

Teachers could fall into any of the market niches, several of the market niches, or be an ‘every parent’ and not match any of the niches. There’s no reason to believe that parents who are teachers have different priorities from the population.

8) Do you think parents are more likely to see underachievement in their children when they are in the category of Test-Score Hawks?

Actually, the opposite. Test-Score hawks are more likely than other parents to say their children are academically gifted and put in a great deal of effort at school—so it’s not surprising that they are more likely to favor schools with high test scores. Achievement in general is important to Test-Score Hawks: they are more likely to set high expectations for their children, push their children to excel, and expect their children to receive a graduate degree.

9) There seems to be a gap in what parents want from the schools and what they expect from their children. Would you say this is because they want the schools to help build more intrinsic motivation and raise the level in which students succeed?

I’m not sure what you mean by “gap in what parents want from the schools and what they expect from their children.” Do you mean that the top items in Figure 1 are school characteristics (school offers a strong core in reading and math, and emphasizes STEM)? And that the top student goals (study habits, critical thinking, and communication) are a bit below that? That’s likely an artifact of the way we phrased the question. We could have just as easily asked parents to prioritize the student goals of high achievement in core subjects of reading and math, and receiving coursework with a STEM emphasis, along with study habits, critical thinking, and communication. Core and STEM would likely topped the list regardless.

10) Or is the curriculum just extensively different today than in the 80’s and 90’s?

I’m not sure what you mean by this question.

11) Do you think parents should have the same expectations of their children as they do in the schools?

Parents are completely reasonable in expecting that schools meet their expectations. This doesn’t mean that all schools should meet all of parents’ demands, but it does mean that all parents should have access to one or more schools that meets most of them. What would this look like? Parents want their children to be successful in school and, as this survey shows, that means districts (1) must have schools that all provide a strong core curriculum and STEM education, and teach study habits, critical thinking skills, and verbal and written communication, and (2) must have a portfolio of diverse, high-quality options that each speaks to parents’ other, diverse priorities.

12). Do you think high stakes testing has changed the way parents view schools and are now prone to be Test-Score Hawks; even though the study says that 23% of parents are Test-Score Hawks?

As a group, parents prioritized that a school “has high test scores” and “prepares students for taking state tests” well below average. This illustrates a chasm between parents and policymakers. The Test Score Hawks ranked a school “has high test scores” in the top third of their priorities from the list. They represent less than a quarter of the parent population. They also don’t prioritize test scores over academics – for this group, a strong core curriculum in reading and math, an emphasis on STEM education, and high academic standards were the top three school characteristics.

13) How can interested policy makers get a copy of the book or report ?

You can download the report at

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