Parents prefer teachers who make their children happy even more than those who emphasize academic achievement, a new University of Michigan study shows.
When requesting a teacher for their elementary school children, parents are more likely to choose teachers who receive high student satisfaction ratings than teachers with strong achievement ratings, said Brian Jacob, the study's co-author and director of the Center on Local, State and Urban Policy at the U-M Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.
These findings, however, mask striking differences across schools. Families in higher poverty schools strongly value student achievement and appear indifferent to the principal's report of a teacher's ability to promote student satisfaction. The results are reversed for families in wealthier schools.
"The value of this study is that it helps education practitioners and policymakers better understand how factors such as family poverty can influence what parents are looking for in a school," Jacob said. "While all parents presumably want what is best for their children, this can mean very different things depending on the school and neighborhood context."
Lars Lefgren, an economist at Brigham Young University, co-authored the study.
The study is the first known review of its kind to examine parents' preferences using information on parent requests for specific teachers within a school. The sample included more than 300 kindergarten through sixth grade teachers in a mid-sized school district in western United States. This district did not have a formal procedure for parent requests, but parents could submit requests to principals before class assignments were made.
Within a school, there were no differences between more and less advantaged parents who requested a teacher in terms of the value the parents placed on student satisfaction versus student achievement.
The findings were consistent with a model in which high- and low-income parents have similar preferences for student outcomes, but face constraints that are correlated with school demographics. Academic resources are typically more limited in higher-poverty schools—for example, such schools generally have more disruptive peers, lower academic expectations, fewer financial resources and less experience teachers. Parents in these schools may seek teachers skilled at improving achievement even if it means sacrificing student satisfaction, the researchers said. In higher-income schools, where academic resources are more abundant, a teacher's focus on academic achievement may be less valuable than his or her ability to help students enjoy school and learning.
The study also found that parents of low-income, minority and low-achieving children are less likely to make requests for specific teachers than other parents.
"Programs that increase the focus on basic skills or classroom management at the expense of student enjoyment or other academic outputs not measured on standardized tests are more likely to be unpopular in higher-income schools," said Jacob, who is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Education Policy and Professor of Economics at the Ford School.
The findings appear in the new issue of the Quarterly Journal of Economics.
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