Blog: The Educated Reporter

When It Comes to Schooling, Are You a ‘Jeffersonian’ Or An ‘Expressionist?’

A conservative think tank is offering an online quiz to help parents identify their educational priorities – and to demonstrate that diverse groups have more in common in their expectations for schools and students than many people might think.

There’s quite a bit of interesting fodder for discussion in the new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, based in Washington, D.C. (Before diving in I’d like to proffer my now-standard caveat: The data represent a snapshot of the public’s perceptions and priorities, and are not a definitive judgment.)

Fordham conducted an online survey of about 2,000 parents, with 91 percent having a child in public school — 14 percent of those in charters and nine percent in a private school. Half of the respondents described their political philosophy as moderate, 30 percent as conservative and 20 percent as liberal.

Respondents were asked a wide range of questions about their religious backgrounds, preferred curriculum and programming priorities for schools, and the expectations they had for their own children’s academic futures. Based on those answers, Fordham created six parental personality profiles. Because there was overlap, the percentages for the categories don’t equal 100 percent. The most common was “Pragmatists” at 36 percent, followed by “Jeffersonians” at 24 percent, “Test-Score Hawks” at 23 percent, “Multiculturalists” at 22 percent, “Expressionists” at 15 percent, and “Strivers” at 12 percent. The online quiz lets people figure out which categories best match their own beliefs.

Michael Petrilli, a vice president at Fordham, said he was surprised how much parents had in common across socioeconomic, political and religious strata when it came to what they felt was important in public education – the commonality that made “Pragmatists” the largest group. What makes the Fordham survey different is that parents weren’t just asked if they thought school programs like sports and music were important, they were asked to rank them in order of importance. That paints a clearer picture, Petrilli said. He noted that the top priorities — high standards, strong reading, math and STEM programs, and an emphasis on critical thinking skills — are all components of the beleaguered Common Core State Standards.

And what were the lowest-ranking priorities? School uniforms (in the school characteristics category) and appreciation of nature (among student goals). Having their children learn a foreign language was also minor concern, which might dismay the authors of a Council on Foreign Relations task force report lamenting that the state of public education represents a national security risk. 

I was also struck by how high gifted programs ranked on the parents’ list of priorities – until I checked the survey’s methodology and found that 36 percent of them said their own child had been identified as gifted or exceptionally talented. Of course, being identified as gifted doesn’t mean their kids have had access to advanced classes or services. In fact, many districts have cut back on gifted and talented education (often referred to by districts as GATE) programs as a cost-saving measure. And this is a self-reported statistic. “Identified” could mean a teacher lavished praise and not necessarily that a student was placed in a formal program. The National Association for Gifted Children estimates that 6 percent of the student population is gifted while acknowledging that’s a very rough statistic, and that there are no reliable means of quantifying it.

I’d like to see some conversations started about Fordham’s findings on the differences in priorities for black and white parents: Black parents were more likely to say getting their child into a top-tier college was important and more likely to value multicultural education. There also are some interesting perspectives on what parents who identified themselves as atheists (a small but growing fraction of the overall U.S. population) said they wanted for their children’s education, compared with those who are practicing a particular faith. Parents who fell into the “expressionist” category, for example, valuing arts and music education, were three times as likely to describe themselves as atheists, according to the survey.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the illustrations that accompany the survey results. While these types of reports typically rely on standard stock art, Fordham went all out. Some of the choices are more successful than others. There’s a weird sort of logic to making the “Jeffersonians” bald eagles in a Revolutionary War-era waistcoats and britches.

But having dogs dressed in French berets and karate gear to represent multiculturalism? That’s a tougher sell. (I’m not even going to touch the parrot in the sombrero.

The message from the survey for school districts and charter school authorizers might be to diversify, Petrilli said. That means having options for families to choose the right program to fit their individual child’s interests – whether it’s the arts, leadership or career prep.

“We really can design an education system that includes most of parents must-haves if we do those things really well,” Petrilli said. “But there also needs to be some kind of choice in the system and allows schools to be different. What’s available for the these parents who are especially focused on citizenship and leadership? What about the strivers? That’s how we make sure in any given community, the students are well served.”