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October 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 2

The Choices Parents Make

The actions of parents in Cambridge, Massachusetts, long known for its choice plan, challenge assumptions about how families select schools for their children.
While advocates and skeptics debate the merits of choice, programs are springing up across the country, often without regard to parents' participation in the process or the values they hold about educating their children. To explore the factors that influence their decisions, I interviewed parents who had chosen kindergarten programs in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where choice has existed since 1981.
Selected through stratified random sampling, the 42 parents represented the diverse racial and ethnic population of the Cambridge public schools: half were Asian, Hispanic, or black; half were white. According to data on housing, subsidized lunch, education, and occupation, approximately one-fourth of the parents were low income, another quarter were upper middle class, and half fell somewhere in between.
  • a well-organized Parent Information Center;
  • a lottery to ensure fairness to parents who apply to oversubscribed programs;
  • provisions for transportation; and
  • a variety of programs from which parents can choose.
Broadly figured, kindergarten options include 11 regular or traditional programs and 9 alternative or nontraditional programs. Nontraditional programs include an Amigos Program, where instruction is offered in English and Spanish; an Open School; an Alternative School; a Computer Program; two Developmental Programs; and three Follow Throughs. Programs are distributed across 13 buildings. Two buildings are predominantly alternative school sites; 6 are predominantly traditional school sites; and 5 buildings contain a mix of both traditional and nontraditional programs. Based on a teacher's contract that stipulates no more than 20 students per kindergarten classroom and yearly enrollment data, approximately 42 classrooms provide 520 openings in traditional classrooms and 320 in nontraditionals.
It is easier to sort the factors that had little or no impact on parents' decisions than it is to categorize those that led parents to choose one program over another. Hard accountability data, for example, had little to do with the choices parents made. Only one couple compared school-to-school performance on standardized tests. The more educated the parents were, the more likely they were to dismiss test results as a poor indicator of student or school success. Rather than quantitative data on school performance, parents wanted answers to two questions: Is it a good school? Are the teachers good?
For that information, parents turned to their friends and neighbors. Not only did their friends travel in similar social circles, but they shared similar values about how children should be treated and taught. Based on those values and several underlying themes, parents broke into two broad philosophical camps: (1) middle- and upper-class families who favored nontraditional programs, particularly the open, alternative, and developmental programs; and (2) lower-income parents and cultural minorities who favored traditional programs.

Nontraditional School Supporters

The parents who preferred nontraditional programs were usually white professionals. They wanted their children in school environments that "stimulated curiosity and encouraged exploration."
"Teachers," said one mother, "should be concerned with the whole person, and learning should be open-ended." Schools need not be "touchy-feely places," said another, but they should foster "a love of learning." Children should be free of "repetitious work sheets" and motivated "to think about a problem and analyze it." A small building where the "principal knew every child by name" was the ideal setting in which to give life to their philosophy.
Although they preferred schools close to home, more advantaged parents were willing to sacrifice convenience in favor of their peers' recommendations. For many, that meant excluding the school at the corner in favor of four nontraditional programs and two small traditional programs that are reputed to serve the children of Harvard professors. The "traditional" designation of the last two schools seems antithetical to parents' stated philosophy, but they defended their decision by arguing that designations like "open" and "traditional" had little meaning.
Armed with a list of "good" programs, parents toured school buildings wondering how to judge what they observed. Random events led them to eliminate or embrace programs. A dirty water fountain, the "drill-sergeant style" of a parent liaison, or a "lily-white" classroom might be reason enough to reject a program. A "messy" classroom, suggesting a teacher more concerned with substance than form or the "happy faces of children" could move a program to first-place status.
A mother who chose a private nursery school for her daughter said, "It's a lot easier to choose private schools because they screen out the unwanted, so you get creme de la creme kids." In fact, several of the nontraditional programs chosen by advantaged parents have been compared to private schools and criticized for being exclusive (Rawson 1992). The nontraditional programs' popularity with advantaged parents promotes keen competition. Because several of these terminate in the early grades, parents who want the K–8 programs can end up competing for fewer than 120 seats. When parents found themselves in the lottery, they likened choice to a game of chance, not a process where good information mattered.

Traditional School Advocates

Parents who favored traditional programs generally came from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds. More than half were cultural minorities. They preferred classrooms where children learned basic skills and the "right answers." One mother described the view as old-fashioned in the sense that the kids have to learn. Their opinions are heard, but kids know what they have to do next. Expectations are the same every day.
These parents were less likely to visit schools, but those who did were happy to see, as one mother did, "strict but good teachers" and students who were not "running wild."
Like their more advantaged counterparts, less-advantaged parents were apt to follow the leads of their friends. For blue-collar families with long-standing ties to the city, those leads might take them out of their neighborhoods to the same two traditional schools chosen by professional families. For cultural minorities, values about keeping young children close to home precluded the possibility of sending a young child to a school outside the neighborhood. When I asked a Mexican-American mother why she had selected her neighborhood school, she said, "The other schools were far away from here, and I was scared to send my son far away on a bus." For parents without cars, neighborhood schools ensured easy accessibility if a child were sick or hurt. Foregoing the traditional philosophy they espoused, the most disadvantaged parents often chose all the programs in large multiprogram neighborhood schools. A quality education for their children was to be found in schools close to home.

Challenging the Assumptions

The patterns and preferences of Cambridge parents challenge the premise that parents want choice, as well as the premise that they will use Parent Information Centers to gather hard information about school performance. Most notably, parents' decisions challenge assumptions about equity and quality.
The argument that parents want choice was the first to come under attack. Initially, most parents looked forward to the prospect of choosing schools. Over time, the possibility that they might not get what they chose, the inequities they uncovered, and the work involved in gathering information dampened their enthusiasm. A mother who was denied all three of the nontraditional programs close to her home said, At first, I thought choice is really great.... Then I found it very anxiety producing.... It's like playing Russian Roulette whether you're going to get into a program or not. The education of your child is not something you want to fool around with.
"When I moved to Cambridge," another mother said, "I was pretty pro-choice. I'm not anymore. I think it benefits those who already have, those who know how to work the system."
Even parents who had received their first choice found the process discouraging. Reviewing the work and time she had put into choosing, a mother concluded, Parents shouldn't have to go through that. All the schools should be upgraded, and kids should go to their closest neighborhood school. I really feel strongly about that now, even though we got what we wanted.
Despite their active outreach and efforts to ensure fairness, the staff at the Parent Information Center could do little to allay parents' frustrations. Contrary to assumptions that information centers in general will help to equalize opportunities, several less-advantaged parents were unaware that the Cambridge Center existed. Parents who did contact the staff were looking for information about the rules of the process and the odds of getting into popular programs. The opinions of friends, cultural norms about keeping young children close to home, and values about how children should be treated and taught were more instrumental in molding parents' decisions than information supplied by the staff.
The factors that influenced parents' choices had the potential to isolate parents by race and social class. Every parent in this sample preferred, as one father put it, "the school right up the block." Less-advantaged parents, however, were more apt to choose the same corner schools that their advantaged neighbors were leaving for alternative programs across the city. Their choices suggest that, without controls, Cambridge schools would resegregate.
Not only do parents' decisions raise questions about equity, but they challenge assumptions about quality and the charter school movement. There is no reason to suppose that the nontraditional programs favored by more advantaged parents were any better than the traditional programs less-advantaged parents preferred. There is no reason to suppose that the traditional programs less-advantaged parents preferred were any better than the nontraditional programs favored by more advantaged parents. Based on studies conducted by Kohn, however, Levin (1990) concluded that parents who select highly structured schools are preparing their children for jobs at low occupational levels, while parents who choose schools that stress conceptual thinking and development beyond basic skills are preparing their children for relatively higher occupational positions.
If we hope to heighten students' career aspirations, efforts to develop alternatives to the traditional model are worth pursuing. At the same time, the majority of parents in this sample believe that the variety theme can be stretched thin. They were more interested in good schools than in theme schools. A principal who greeted children when they arrived at school in the morning was far more likely to impress upper-middle-class white parents than the number of computers in the building.
Interestingly enough, whether or not they received the programs they had chosen, most parents were satisfied if their children loved going to school and if, at any given moment, a teacher could gently bring a class to order. In the rush to develop experimental theme schools, educators might want to remember that any interest Cambridge parents had in specialty schools gave way to schools where principals and teachers acted as if they "cared about kids" and nourished fundamental values about learning.
How parents judged the overall quality of a school was often determined by a snapshot taken at a moment in time. Parents' perceptions of some of the most popular programs in the city were fascinating for their contradictions. Three parents who visited a small, oversubscribed developmental school walked away with very different pictures. On the advice of her friends, one mother had planned to include the school on her top-three list. The day she toured the school, the art teacher lost control of the students. When the classroom teacher was summoned, he refused to disrupt his break. For this mother, the teacher's behavior "represented what the school is about," and she decided, "I don't want it." Another mother listed the program as a first choice because on the day she visited, she saw only "quality" teachers. A third mother did not focus on the quality of the teaching staff during her visit because she could not get beyond the "dark and dreary" facilities.
Parents' fleeting impressions of quality, coupled with the fact that white middle-class parents are the ones arguing for the expansion of nontraditional programs, suggest two reasons that Cambridge officials have been slow to respond to parents' demands to replicate programs like this small developmental school.
Choice advocates who promote a free educational market argue that, in failing to listen to parents' demands, Cambridge officials have not instituted the kinds of changes that will bring about school improvement (Chubb and Moe 1990). Although the Cambridge plan was never intended to improve schools, critics ignore what the patterns and preferences of parents do tell us about school improvement. If choice is introduced without controls into racially and socioeconomically diverse populations, poor schools are unlikely to improve. Parents who believe children belong close to home will guarantee even the worst neighborhood schools an adequate supply of students, while the parents most likely to push for change will seek better opportunities across town.
Whether choice is introduced as a way to improve schools, achieve racial balance, or provide distinctive learning environments for students, educators will need to beware of three assumptions. First, we cannot assume that choosing schools is as simple as selecting among brands of breakfast cereal. If educators do not attend to the difficulties parents face, choice will breed skepticism and disenfranchise parents.
Second, simply putting a Parent Information Center in place and providing hard performance data will not guarantee equity or smart consumers. Finding creative ways to ensure fairness and honor parents' choices must be a high priority for those contemplating school choice plans.
Finally, we cannot assume that parents' demands will improve schools. Leaving the responsibility for good schools in the hands of parents is unfair to them and to the children whose parents lack the time and resources to speak out. Instead, educators must work with parents to establish, monitor, and safeguard the standards for educational excellence. Only then can we assume that all parents will choose quality schools.
References

Chubb, J., and T. Moe. (1990). Politics, Markets, and American Schools. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, pp. 211-212.

Levin, H. M. (1990). "The Theory of Choice Applied to Education." In Choice and Control in American Education, Volume 1: The Theory of Choice and Control in Education, edited by W. H. Cline and J. F. Witte, pp. 247-284. The Stanford Series on Education and Public Policy. London: Falmer.

Rawson, B. (November 25, 1992). "Choice Enlivens City Schools." Cambridge Chronicle: 1,10.

Maureen Allenberg Petronio has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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