An interesting research article in the latest issue of Education Next magazine (Summer 2007) looks at the teacher preferences of parents in low-income and affluent schools, and finds ‘striking differences.’

The article, which carries the hefty title ‘In Low-Income Schools, Parents Want Teachers Who Teach — In Affluent Schools, Other Things Matter,’ summarizes research by Brian Jacob, a heavily credentialed education policy scholar at the University of Michigan, and Lars Lefgren, an assistant professor of economics at Brigham Young University. The study uses data on teacher requests (by parents) and teacher evaluations (by principals) from 12 elementary schools in a midsized school district in the western United States.

Here’s a snippet that sets up the article:

Are test scores the educational outcomes that parents value most? We tackle this question by examining the types of teachers that parents request for their elementary school children. We find that, on average, parents strongly prefer teachers whom principals describe as best able to promote student satisfaction, though parents also value teacher ability to improve student academics. These aggregate effects, however, mask striking differences across schools. Parents in high-poverty schools strongly value a teacher’s ability to raise student achievement and appear indifferent to student satisfaction. In wealthier schools the results are reversed: parents most value a teacher’s ability to keep students happy.

Later in the article, the authors note that “…within a school, a family’s own socioeconomic status is uncorrelated with the type of teacher a parent requests. That is, both more- and less-advantaged parents in low-income schools tend to request teachers that are rated highly in terms of their ability to improve student achievement.”

After some detailed discussion of the research process and resulting data, the authors propose a possible explanation for the preference of low-income parents:

One possible explanation emphasizes the role of school context in the educational process, particularly the interaction between parents, schools, and students. In this view, high- and low-income parents have similar preferences for student outcomes, but face constraints that are correlated with school demographics. Because academic resources are relatively scarce in higher-poverty schools (e.g., there are more disruptive peers, lower academic expectations, fewer financial resources, and less-competent teachers), parents in these schools seek teachers skilled at improving achievement even if this comes at the cost of student satisfaction.

In their conclusion, Jacob and Lefgren surmise that “what parents want from school depends on the educational context in which they find themselves.”

In particular, in low-income schools where academic resources are scarce, motivated parents are more likely to choose teachers based on their perceived ability to improve academic achievement. On the other hand, in higher-income schools these parents seem to respond to the relative abundance of academic resources by seeking out teachers who also increase student satisfaction. This may reflect a parental preference for their children to enjoy school, or it might reflect parental preferences for teachers who emphasize academic facets that increase student satisfaction but are not captured by standardized test scores, such as critical thinking or curiosity.

Let’s hope a fair number of more affluent parents fall into the second possibility and DO value critical thinking or curiosity as much or more than test scores.

This is a nuanced report with a number of caveats. If you’re intrigued, be sure to read it for yourself.

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