What do parents want from schools? Goals have changed, survey says

Students move between classes at Beaver School District’s Belknap Elementary School.

Students move between classes at Beaver School District’s Belknap Elementary School in Beaver on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The pandemic seems to have changed what parents expect of K-12 education, according to a new Populace Insights study that says college preparation has fallen as a goal since COVID-19’s spread began. But the survey reveals a large disconnect between what people actually want from education and their perception of what society wants.

Todd Rose, Populace co-founder, told Axios the study shows an “exhausted majority” hope that education will help kids learn how to think for themselves and that it will enable them to pursue work that provides them with a personal sense of both “meaning and purpose.”

The nationally representative poll of 1,010 adults was conducted by YouGov in September 2022. Respondents were given a list of 57 educational priorities and asked to choose what matters to them, then were asked how they thought others would respond. That’s how the poll showed the perception discrepancy.

According to Populace’s “Purpose of Education Index,” the public actually has less desire than most adults think for school to get kids ready for college or to work toward acquiring high-paying jobs. Rather, there’s greater interest in letting students pursue what interests them and seeing them develop practical skills, like mastering personal finance and knowing how to take care of themselves. 

As Axios reported, “Americans perceive that society places a lot of value on schools preparing student for college. In reality, people rank that goal toward the bottom of the list.”

Adults care considerably more about character development in students, ranking it No. 3 on the survey.

The survey found that having students learn practical skills, like how to manage their money and make a meal, came in ahead of critical thinking to solve problems and make decisions. Character development was just ahead of basic skills development in reading, writing and arithmetic. The fifth priority was seeing that “all students receive the unique supports they need throughout their learning.”

Populace said the report was “consequential for anyone interested in the future of the education system in America.”

The survey showed, among other things, that adults believe:

  • College should not be the ultimate goal of K-12 education. The survey said college preparation ranked No. 47 on the 57-item list.
  • Developing “practical” and “tangible” goals should be a priority, however.
  • Education should be individualized, rather than “one size fits all.” Assessing students based on standardized testing was given low priority.
  • Race makes a difference in ranking education goals, with some overlap. Racial groups shared an interest in developing critical thinking and practical skills, but some of the priorities were very different. For instance, “being prepared to be a productive member of society is the fifth-highest priority for Hispanics compared to White (No. 48), Black (No. 39), and Asian (No. 30) respondents,” the report said.
  • The goal should not be “better,” but “different.” Per the report, “The vast majority of the general population believes more things about the educational system should change than stay the same (71%), including 21% who say nearly everything should change.”

The report found that while schools and in-person education took a hit when the pandemic began — most shut down completely for a time and education went largely online — just over a third think education should return to its pre-pandemic teaching patterns, while 55% think changes by schools and education itself are needed.

Education in pandemic

COVID-19 changed more than attitudes when it came to education. As Deseret News education reporter Marjorie Cortez recently reported, “The latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress reflect years of disrupted learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic as math and reading scores declined nationwide.”

The report said reading scores dropped to 1992 levels and nearly 40% of eighth graders didn’t understand basic math concepts.

The Associated Press reported that “not a single state saw a notable improvement in their average test scores, with some simply treading water at best.”

Individualized vs. mass learning

The Populace study taps into a sentiment that seems to have been growing for some time: the importance of tailoring education to individuals, rather than asking all children to learn in the same way.

In a guest column for the Deseret News in May, former teacher and administrator Jon England, now education policy analyst for the Libertas Institute, wrote that efforts to standardize education and a push for testing to measure student progress en masse hasn’t yielded the results hoped for when it comes to better academic outcomes. What has worked, he argued, is giving parents some choices so that education can meet the needs of individual students, teaching them in the way they learn and providing some choice in what to study.

COVID-19, he wrote, has given parents more options. They can choose between public, charter and private schools. Or their children can study online, in hybrid in-person and online programs, homeschool options and more. Parents can, he said, “mix and match these to whatever is best for their children.”

According to England, providing options to meet individualized needs improves parental satisfaction and students’ academic achievement. The outcomes are simply better, England said.

Other endpoints

While education experts say college is a good path and a worthy goal as children move into adulthood, many also believe that it’s not the only path to success as an adult.

That’s a point that a number of states have taken seriously — for example, creating more vocational options for young people in recent years. The Deseret News reported back in 2019 that “Colorado and Michigan are among states taking a serious look at how to give young people skills to succeed financially. They aren’t discouraging college as an option, but they say students graduating from high school should have a better sense of all options, including skilled trades.”

At the time, independent college consultant Eva M. Dodds of Franklin, Michigan, said that focusing solely on moving youths toward a college education could “shortchange a young person’s skills, interests and options.”

She believes in college and graduated from Harvard. But she said that not all students thrive in college or are interested in attending or earning a degree. And options like skilled vocational trades are for some a better path to thriving.

The Populace Insights report said the one thing that everyone agrees on is the need for students to learn to think for themselves so they can make good decisions — including, perhaps, about what to do with the rest of their lives.